There’s nothing like feeling the wind in your hair on a Sunday afternoon, Suzie thought. She glanced over her shoulder and stepped on the gas, merging in front of a semi with chrome horns on the hood.
When she waved thank you she caught the driver making a peace sign and flicking his tongue through it in the rear-view mirror. Flattered, she giggled and cranked up the music, speeding through the end of a long curve. In twenty minutes she’d be back at Roger’s house, finally.
The Toyota convertible she was driving had been a gift from Billy though. Poor fucker had been e-mailing her again lately. God, how he’d loved her, that one. She knew he was a good man, and she’d tried to stay with him, but he was just so square now with his annual trips to Key West and his low-sodium diet. Ever since his heart attack he’d bored her to death. She’d been about to turn 50 and on the verge of dumping him, when he’d offered to help her find a car. And then, when he showed up on her birthday in a black convertible with a big red ribbon tied around it, well, it was simply the right thing to do to stick it out for another few months.
He was the one who’d left her, in the end. Selfish prick.
The year was almost up on the insurance he pre-paid, she remembered. Maybe she should answer his emails.
She drove one-handed, waving the other hand through the breeze above her head to dry her Cutex. All she’d wanted was a quiet couple of hours at home to get right before going to Roger’s.
She switched hands and adjusted the rear-view, catching a glimpse of her face in the mirror. With her blonde hair in the wind like this and a touch of red lipstick, she could probably pass for 35, she decided.
“At 35 I was still taking care of you little shits!”
The memory came back to her in a flash. Her son had tracked her down last night.
“Now here you are checking in on me. Ha!”
“Did you forget Adam’s birthday?” he asked her, leaning against the bar where she sat, alone, elbows wide.
“Nope, his present’s right here.” She shoved a gift bag overstuffed with tattered blue tissue paper toward him.
“I was going to go after this one.” She pointed to her glass.
“Ma, it’s 11 pm. He’s six.”
“Well, I’m allowed to have a life, too, you know.”
She recalled the blank look on his face; recalled steadying herself on the bar before shuffling off to the bathroom, where everything turned black. Then nothing until they pulled up in front of the duplex she shared with her sister.
Her son kissed her on the cheek. “I love you, Ma.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she mumbled.
She thought maybe someone had helped her up the stairs, but couldn’t recall a face. Whoever it was, they hadn’t closed the door behind them on the way out because when she crawled out of bed this morning the front door was wide open, with her keys still in the lock.
“God damn it,” she kicked it shut.
Her mouth was pasty. She winced at the cold tiles in the sun-filled kitchen and drank a glass of cool water from the tap. Immediately, her stomach gurgled.
She grasped the stainless-steel sink with both hands and stared at the flowering apple tree in the yard. The breeze made it sway. Her stomach seized. She clamped down harder, but when it seized again she couldn’t stop the water from coming back up. It was clear, still cold. Had she eaten supper the night before? She couldn’t remember.
There was only one thing to do when this happened. She reached for the glass and filled it with apple juice and a spoonful of honey, then warmed it a few seconds in the microwave. It was all that ever stopped her stomach from revolting.
She sucked the honey off the spoon and washed it down with little sips while the apple tree swayed outside. She heard footsteps in the stairwell and turned, leaning back on the counter to greet her sister. No one was there.
She heard footsteps again.
“You’re looking right at them, Suze,” she squinted. “Nobody there.”
She shivered. She could swear she heard someone talking upstairs. Somehow her t-shirt was soaked in sweat.
She added a splash of vodka from the bottom cabinet to her drink. Her stomach tightened. She took a gulp, gripped the sink and closed her eyes. She was so cold.
As the liquid made its way down, her stomach warmed up and relaxed. She took another baby sip, and another. She opened her eyes and watched the tree sway some more. Suddenly exhausted, she cupped her glass in both hands and downed the last of it. She put the cup in the sink, shuffled back to her bedroom and crawled under the covers. It was only 5:30 am.
When the neighbor’s lawnmower woke her it was a few minutes past 9. A single sunbeam cut through the blackout curtain and hit her in the face. She groaned and propped herself up. Her hands were clammy, her mouth dry.
She walked out to the kitchen. Her glass was clean, and upside-down in the dish rack. Shelly was awake.
Suzie half-filled the glass with tap water and downed it. The cool liquid went through her stomach and startled her intestines instead. A painful cramp in her abdomen told her to run to the toilet.
The bathroom door barely closed behind her as she rushed to yank her panties down. The toilet filled with brownish liquid. The smell was so foul she flushed twice.
A stomach cramp came now, too, and she retched. Her empty stomach seized, and she retched again until tears ran down her cheeks. She ran water in the bathroom sink and took a few sips but it immediately came back out, yellow and bitter. She leaned against the door, which slammed shut and startled her.
She sank to the floor, shaking. If she could only get back to the kitchen and keep some honey down, she knew, this would stop.
When her head stopped spinning she pushed herself up, splashed cold water on her face, and flushed the toilet again. She went to the kitchen to fix herself another glass, but retired to the bathroom to drink it.
And so it was, for the first hour of her Sunday, Suzie would sip her medicine on the floor, between the toilet and the bathtub.
She painted her nails red, for Roger.
With a foot propped up on the tub she noticed a bruise on the inside of her right knee, and one on her left thigh. She didn’t remember them being there yesterday. She had a fuzzy memory of tripping up the steps to her house and landing on her side. The inside of her palms was scraped, too.
There was a knock at the door.
“Suze? You in there?” Shelly was a rapid-finger-knocker, which drove Suzie batshit.
“Yes!” she hollered. “Stop that!”
“Sorry!” she laughed. “Just wanted to remind you Hank’s coming over to put in the screens. Should be here by eleven.”
“Fuck!” Suzie stood up and swung open the door. “Couldn’t he come do that when I’m at work?”
Shelly took in her sister: skinny, stinky, in panties and a stained tank top, with bright red nails, greasy hair, and glassy, bloodshot eyes.
“You leave me alone.”
A wave of sadness washed over Shelly, who mustered up a smile for her sister. “I thought maybe we could go bargain hunting at Birdie’s while he’s here. They’re having a huge spring clearance sale.”
Suzie rolled her eyes and stomped out of the bathroom on her heels to avoid smudging her nails. “I got shit to do,” she said as she hunted for her pack of cigarettes. She found it, and lit one. “It’s Roger’s birthday today,” she explained between puffs.
Then she noticed Shelly’s faint eyebrow arch, the way only a sister could.
Shelly cocked her head. “Adam called looking for you yesterday.”
“Yeah, well, grandma’s too old for bouncy houses. Besides, he got his present, little shit.”
Shelly scoffed. “You’re unbelievable.”
Suzie, dizzy from her cigarette, flipped off her sister and stomped back into the bathroom. She tossed her cigarette into the toilet and yelled “I’m an adult, Shel!” over the flushing sound. She watched it spiral down until her vision started to go black, then she turned the shower on cold and jumped in.
“Shit!” she muttered when she realized her nails were still wet.
The shower revived her and, polish be damned, she towel-dried her hair with such vigor that her scalp tingled, and her cheeks turned rosy. She inspected her nails and laughed. Shiny had never been her forte.
She could hear Shelly upstairs in her studio, puttering around. She slipped into a clean pair of shorts and a checkered sleeveless blouse, and tiptoed out into the kitchen to fry herself a couple of eggs. She loaded them with salt and chased them down with a little more spiked juice, to ensure everything stayed down.
With her dishes clean, she headed out to the back deck to apply a second coat of polish.
She sat on a deck chair in the sun to fix her nails, with a lit cigarette in her mouth and her feet up on the table. The phone rang, and she let it.
“Hi, Grandma Suzie!” Adam’s voice came from the answering machine.
“Tell her thank you,” her son whispered in the background.
“Thank you!” Adam continued. There was more whispering. “For the bear! I love you!”
Shelly came storming out. “You’re not even going to talk to your own grandson?”
“God damn it, look at me, my nails are all wet!”
“Can’t fucking believe you,” she shook her head. “Mom would be ashamed.”
“Well, she’s fucking dead, Shel. Now can I please enjoy my Sunday morning?”
Shelly took a deep breath. “I need twenty-five dollars for Hank.”
“Twenty-five fucking dollars?”
“He’s coming over on his day off to put in all our screens and mow the lawn, so yes, I told him we’d give him fifty bucks.”
“Do you think I’m made out of goddamn money, Shel?”
“You’d have a lot more if you didn’t drink it all.”
“Fuck you!” Suzie snapped. “I’m a grown fucking woman and I like to have a little fun. Maybe if you loosened up a little you could get a man to pay attention to you, too. When’s the last time you got laid? Huh?” she sneered.
Shelly’s eyes welled up with tears. It was disappointment that hit her. Her baby sister was so far away. She shook her head and went back inside.
“What? I’m only asking the questions everyone wants to ask!” she hollered. As she stubbed out her cigarette she spotted the neighbor peering at her from her garden. “Morning!” Suzie waved.
She hobbled inside to get her wallet but her nails were still too wet for the clasp on her purse. She huffed, annoyed, and remembered the jar of change she kept on the dresser in her room. She stomped in, clamped it between her palms, and marched up the stairs.
She exploded into Shelly’s art studio. “You want your twenty-five bucks? Here!” she slammed the jar on her drawing table.
“Take advantage of me and judge me all you fucking want,” she yelled as she hobbled down the stairs, “Just be ready to deal with the consequences!”
She slipped on her flip-flops and grabbed her purse and keys, slammed the front door and got in her convertible.
While she waited for the top to come down she tuned the radio to the classic rock station and turned the volume up. She backed out of the driveway without looking and peeled down the street to the gas station for cigarettes. Hank was at the pump cleaning his windshield.
“Hi Suzie,” he smiled.
“Hank!” she exclaimed, “What a nice surprise.”
“I’m on my way over to you,” he nodded. “Couldn’t show up in a filthy truck, now.”
“Aw, thanks, doll! Listen, I gotta run but I made sure Shelly knew to take good care of you,” she winked. “Couple of single gals like us, we really appreciate all you do!”
She squeezed his arm. “Don’t work too hard, now!” she teased.
She went inside to get cigarettes and could see his reflection in the window, watching her. She got a kick out of Hank. He was too much of a good boy, but he was good enough to keep on the backburner.
Roger, she thought as she got back in the car, now there was a man who was worth her time. His wife had died last year, and that messed up all the plans they’d made to travel in the RV they bought for his 60th. Now, with his wife’s life insurance policy settlement, he was talking about retiring early and buying “us” a house on the lake. His kids were all grown. They had their own kids now. He’d only been dating Suzie for a little over a month so she hadn’t met any of them yet, but he’d promised to tell them about her last night, at his pre-birthday dinner.
Today was his actual birthday and she’d promised to cook him a tenderloin fit for a king, so she headed to the supermarket for a fresh cut. She snapped up a bottle of red, a bottle of champagne, potatoes and peppers for the grill, Alka-Seltzer, a chocolate cake, and those candles with the numbers on them, a 6 and a 2.
“Hey Suzie, wait a sec!” she heard a man’s voice behind her at the checkout. She turned and recognized the tall, dark barback. Was it Kevin?
“Hey! You’re not supposed to exist out in the world!”
“Hah,” he chuckled. “Everything ok with the car?”
She had no idea what he was talking about. Luckily, he kept going.
“I pulled the seat back up after I parked it, you know. You make it inside ok? You were pretty lit up last night!”
He had a high-pitched laugh, like a teenager’s. It grated on her nerves.
All at once it came to her: his face as he ran up the front steps to help her last night. She hadn’t recognized him at first. Then, embarrassed, she’d shoved him away. That’s when she fell and yelled at him to leave her alone.
“Oh, huh,” she looked away. “Yeah, everything’s fine. I forgot to eat supper last night, so I couldn’t hold it down like usual, you know…” she tried to smile, then just stared at the gallon of milk in his hands.
“Totally know what you mean! I can’t drink like I used to either!” he shook his head.
What is he, she thought, twenty-eight? Smartass.
“See you around, Kevin,” she waved.
“Oh, uh, it’s Chad,” he grinned. “No worries though! See you around!” he waved and walked over to the self-checkout.
The cashier looked at Suzie with a perky smile and reached for the champagne “Looks like we’re celebrating!” she giggled.
In the parking lot, Suzie started to feel a bit dizzy. Maybe the fried eggs weren’t enough, she thought. She sat in the car and cracked open a beer, wrapped it in a napkin, and drank two-thirds of it. She opened her door just enough to set the can down on the pavement. Chad drove past and waved. She pulled out behind him and headed for the freeway.
About a mile down the road Chad turned in to the old community center where they made her go to all those AA meetings a few years back. She got stuck at the red light, so she watched him stroll up to a handful of smokers and give out bear hugs. Someone took the milk from him.
“Figures,” she smirked.
She lit a cigarette, popped two breath mints and fastened her seatbelt. Cops weren’t usually out here on Sundays but she hadn’t been pulled over in two years and she wasn’t about to break her streak. The light turned green and she zipped over the bridge to the freeway on-ramp.
She picked up speed, felt the wind in her hair, turned the music up. Her nails were still a bit sticky so she held a hand up to the wind while driving with the other. By the time she merged in front of the trucker, she was already well above the speed limit. She tapped the brakes and caught her reflection in the rear-view. Nothing a little lipstick couldn’t fix right up.
She kept her eyes on the road as she unclasped her purse, and she turned it upside down over the passenger seat to rummage for the little black tube.
The truck driver caught up to her. He was still making vulgar gestures she could see in the mirror. She sped up and spotted the lipstick she needed. Her car swerved a little, but she caught it.
While she applied a smear to her bottom lip she caught up to an old Cadillac and glanced over her shoulder to pass it. The truck was still behind her, but she jerked out into the left lane. A glance to the right confirmed what Suzie suspected, a boring couple, probably just over sixty but going on seventy-five, not a care in the world for her or anyone else’s Sunday.
“You’re not dead yet!” she yelled at them. “Live a little, for fuck’s sake!”
She swerved back into the right lane and smacked her lips together.
A moment later the truck’s horn blared. The driver had pulled up behind her again. He was waving and hitting his horn, and then he stuck his tongue out and panted like a puppy.
“Jesus,” she laughed, “Calm down!”
She moved to the left lane and let him catch up. Then, minding her nails, she popped the top of her blouse open and shook her tits at him.
She didn’t even see his tire start to smoke. By the time it blew, right before his trailer jackknifed, he was trying to sign to her to follow him to a rest area, and she was speeding up to avoid missing Roger’s exit.
It wasn’t until she was waving from the off-ramp that she realized his truck was skidding sideways off the road. The Cadillac was jammed under the trailer.
From the red light she couldn’t see a damn thing. Her heart thumped. She took some deep breaths to steady herself, until the car behind her honked. She snapped out of her stupor and drove ahead.
Behind her, police lights turned on.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” she looked at the passenger seat and rummaged for her breath mints. She popped two, chucked the box back, and then she heard the siren.
All at once, the police car swerved out onto the shoulder and raced ahead, stopping traffic. Suzie looked down at her chest and quickly buttoned up. One of the buttons made a dent in her thumbnail.
The cruiser made a u-turn and doubled back, past Suzie and toward the freeway. A plume of charcoal-colored smoke billowed up into the sky.
Suzie lit a cigarette to calm herself. She was just blocks from Roger’s. What if they tracked her car down?
She knew she had to hurry up and get a drink in her, in case they checked her blood alcohol. She kept driving, flicked her cigarette into the road and double-checked her lipstick as she pulled into his driveway — their driveway, maybe, soon.
She grabbed the groceries out of the back seat and raced up the steps.
“Oh my God, I’m so glad to see you!” she dropped the bags by the door and jumped into Roger’s arms. He’d just walked in from the back deck. “Happy birthday!” she kissed his neck and summoned up enough emotion for tears to flow.
“Hey, hey, what’s wrong?” he pulled back to look at her.
“This maniac trucker almost ran me off the road!”
Roger set his beer down. “Oh, no! Are you okay?” he squeezed both her arms from shoulder to wrist. His eyes filled with concern.
“I’m just so frazzled, I thought I wouldn’t make it. I’m shaking!” she held her hands out for him to see.
She sank into a chair and he handed her his beer. “Have a drink,” he said.
“You take such good care of me,” she sighed, relieved.