When did the nosebleeds begin? Months before I met Gabe? Weeks? That night? I did get a couple that night. The first came before work—technically during work. I was in the alley behind Raw, ten minutes late to my shift, and leaning my head back so I wouldn’t dirty my shirt. Eric’s car was unlocked, so I got in, knowing there’d be napkins inside. I shifted his rear-view mirror to face me. Thin red streaks crossed my lips like stitches.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. “What’s wrong?” Dad asked, after hellos, the weather.
“Allergies.” Tufts of napkins stuffed my nose.
Eventually, he asked when I planned to come home. Meaning that small town in Delaware. The original state, as he called it. “The east coast wants ya back,” he said. “We got five hundred Hancocks on a petition.”
“You need a thousand,” I said.
“I misspoke. Two thousand. A hundred. Three million and climbing.”
“I have a life here.”
“Wiping tables with your diploma?”
No diploma. But it wasn’t the right time to tell him. “I use the gown.”
“You’re all alone out there.”
So what? I thought. “No one’s alone.”
“Listen, I can get you—I know it’s not what you want—an easy job at the firm. Filing papers, answering phones. You might like it more than Mom did.”
“I need to go,” I said. I hated when he compared me to her.
“What do you say?”
“I’m already employed.”
“Will you consider it?”
“Bye, Dad.” I hung up.
These phone calls were common. I didn’t mind. They were good for him. It had been a year since Mom died and he still wasn’t over her death. They’d been, like most couples, mismatched. When they met, he was thirty-three years old, charming but desperate, handsome but dressed like an eight-year-old: white Keds and polo shirts. He shamelessly drove a DeLorean. Mom was twenty-three and arresting. She didn’t love. She hadn’t loved. I mean, she hadn’t gone to my father for love. He was a financial adviser, and she was indebted to Visa and AmEx and Saks, and to a small savings bank in Virginia that had sent her name to collections. Dad, the romantic, paid off her debt to show how he felt. She married him to say thanks, and became indebted. Was there love? There must’ve been love. Plenty from him. He’d loved her too much, I’d decided. No, disproportionately is more accurate. And his biweekly phone calls begging me to come home? Clearly those weren’t about me, but about him wanting to recover some part of my mother. But I let him call, let him talk. We all make sacrifices.
I turned off my phone. Outside, the alley’s hasty wind filled my sleeves. Gray clouds suffocated the sky. I entered Raw’s back entrance and hurried through the dining room, past empty tables and the marble sushi bars on my way to the servers’s station in the back, where we hung out when we weren’t taking tables. It was practically a tunnel. A thin corridor framed by stacked cases of Sapporo and a cheap vinyl countertop crusted with sake and soy sauce. It smelled like socks and decomposed fish. One dim lamp dangled from a string overhead. This was our sanctuary.
Eric was back there, leaning against the Sapporo. “You’re late,” he said.
“Worried about me?”
“Sick.” He smiled sheepishly, or almost sheepishly. Eric was a series of almosts: almost chunky, almost muscular, almost handsome. He had lazy brown eyes and matching shaggy hair, almost too plain, and when we discussed our lives I almost thought him intelligent. We’d almost slept together a few weeks earlier, and Eric believed that we were in love. Eric.
Lisa carried back a plate of sushi she’d bussed from a table. “Hungry?” she asked.
Always. We devoured the deep-fried sushi rolls gone spongy and cold, the sinewy tuna sashimi, rubbery ika that bounced between molars, the white radish shredded into crisp strands of hair and washed it down with cold sake that we’d poured into Sprite. Soy sauce browned our fingertips. The kitchen bell rang. There was food to deliver.
Eric and Lisa scrambled away. I poured myself a cup of green tea. As I drank, I repeated, You are stressed and you must de-stress. A nice, healthy mantra. I slowed my breathing. The healthy body is the unstressed body. I hummed, picturing empty clearings, open skies, half-trying to meditate, until Eric interrupted to tell me they needed help taking tables.
* * *
I’m getting to Gabe. But I should probably say more about my mother. When I was fourteen, she published a new-agey, self-help book called The Cure Within, about overcoming leukemia—which she did, once. The book was a short-lived success. She was invited on radio talk shows. She gave an interview to O Magazine. In town, strangers pointed her out in the supermarket. She spent two months that winter touring the tri-states and New England, reading passages to small crowds in the back corners of bookstores, near the bathrooms.
In Boston she fucked a man she met at the Hilton. He was a fan, she later told me, who had loved chapter three—the one about exercise. I learned this last year when she called to say she was sick again. She wanted to tell me everything, but she didn’t. I forget most of that night, but not this: I was editing my senior thesis when she called. My topic—the efficacy of phytochemicals in cruciferous vegetables—was based on a chapter from her book. After she hung up I deleted my paper and booked a flight home.
During her final weeks I treated Mom like a chore. I talked to her when there was nothing good on TV. I rarely refilled her water bottle. I knew how cruel I was being, but I continued, partly because she never complained, partly because I liked being mad at her. For most of my life she’d been one of those women who glow—for whom cops write warnings and cashiers round down to the nearest dollar—but, near the end, she was helpless and pitiable, reduced to slurping dinners through tubes. Her pale loose skin looked pinned to her bones like a sheet on a clothesline. She would tell me, when we spoke, not that she loved me, or that she would miss me, but about the things she wanted, not material things, but things like more flesh on her bones, or softer skin, fuller hair. The things I had. The things that I was pleased to be unable to give her.
* * *
The rush started just after seven. Soon every table was seated. Raw became noise. That of the customers talking then shouting, their voices absorbing the chirpy bell from the kitchen, where, inside, was more noise, hoses spraying fish off the dishes and chefs cursing servers in Spanish for neglecting the orders, the microwave purring and beeping, then back to dining room, where Heejoung shouted butchered American names from the waiting list—“Ebi! (Abby?) Nile! (Neil?) Done-goo (Who knows?)”—and the hungriest customers shyly approached to test their name against the mispronunciations. Was there music? There must’ve been music. Eric kicked somebody’s toddler. The kitchen smelled like bodies and bleach and garbagy smoke from the eel they cooked in the microwave. I was thirsty but too hurried to drink and my tongue grew gunky and fat. The head sushi chef took pulls from his flask when he thought no one was looking. Every table cleared was quickly wiped clean and reseated, though the waiting line grew, and I began to accept, or to hope, like I normally do midway into a rush, that I’d die here, that people’d keep coming and I’d keep serving and they’d keep eating and I’d keep smiling and we’d keep this up for the rest of forever.
A woman at the sushi bar wore my mother’s perfume, that stale Claiborne scent resonant of casket wreaths and rotten fruit. I wanted to stand nearby and smell it all night. But my boss handed me a plate full of sushi. “Here ready,” he said, “Table ‘leven.” I hurried away holding the food but slowed where I’d smelled the perfume—perhaps it was the perfume that upset me. Another server rushed toward me. I twisted away and jogged to table eleven. When I set down the food, I heard, “What is that?” They were pointing at the little red speckles freckling the fish and the plate.
* * *
In the bathroom, I bent over the scuffed porcelain sink with my palms on the mirror. My left nostril was rimmed red. The blood seemed to be pulsing. But of course it wasn’t, I think. I dug into my pocket, instinctively, because I wanted to call my father, but my phone was on the back counter. What would calling him have done? I wondered. I wasn’t sick. I couldn’t be. And it would’ve been cruel to make him worry. To make him upset for no reason.
Get this. He blamed Mom for dying so young. Blame, blame, blame. Me? I’ve decided I’m done with the blame. What good did it do him to insist that she’d died on purpose? Who dies on purpose? Fine, plenty of people, but who would’ve done what he accused her of doing? He traced every martini Mom swallowed, every American Spirit she smoked, to some plot to escape our family. I’ve tried doing the same. Looking for clues in the days she didn’t put on her jacket. Or how rarely she buckled her seatbelt. But these searches always lead to the same conclusion: she’s dead. What else is there to find out?
“She wanted out, Tar,” Dad tells me. “All I gave her and she still wanted out.” This is what Dad never got—Eric too—and what Mom taught me: implicit in giving is taking.
Yes, he married her, he gave her a comfortable life, he gave her a daughter, but in doing so he stole the lithe, beautiful woman she’d been in her twenties, the former gymnast who climbed mountains on weekends, who ran marathons and backpacked through Italy.
As a girl I loved hearing her talk about her life before marriage. The Genoese sunsets she spoke of in her clunky, hokey Italian. The way her hands felt gritty and strong after climbing Mt. Hood. She would grin when she mentioned other men—exciting men, men who didn’t snap their fingers while dancing, men who shirtlessly captained catamarans—but that grin would dissolve into sadness when she concluded a story. “What else?” I used to say. “What else?” But at that time, when I was a girl, there was nothing else.
* * *
I rinsed my face and dried off with my apron. The bleeding had ceased. In the corridor that led to the back entrance, I could hear the rush, its muffled, incessant voices. I walked outside, to the alley, and stood under the short lip of the roof listening to raindrops drum empty dumpsters. Eric dragged a garbage bag out the backdoor. He asked what the hell I was doing.
“Listening to the rain,” I said.
“Are you okay?” he asked. Eric. So caring.
I wanted to say, “No, I haven’t slept well in nearly a year, I’m worried I’m dying,” but if I said this he’d put his arm on my shoulder and tell me everything would be fine, he’d thumb a strand of hair away from my eyes, or wish there were a strand of hair over my eyes so he could thumb it away, he’d steal a kiss on my cheek, he’d slide his hand to my waist and say, “Let’s go back inside,” meaning, “Please let me take you away from you.”
We’d been drinking with coworkers the night we’d almost had sex. He was funny when drunk, gregarious, much cuter, so I went home with him. In bed, he’d come while kicking his jeans off. He asked if I was mad. I wasn’t, but saw no reason to say so. I shrugged. He tried to get me off with his hand. It felt nice, but I made him stop. I gathered my clothes from the floor, dressed, and walked home after refusing his offers to drive me.
In the alley, I said to him, “Is it bad?” meaning the rush.
“Nothing I can’t cover.” He smiled, waiting for me to smile back, and when I didn’t he went back inside. I untied my apron and stepped into the rain. I started running down the alley. Busboys slumped on milk crates smoking cigarettes shouted at me to come talk to them, but I kept running, the rain beating harder, sopping my clothes and glossily pooling in shallow depressions. Streetlights flickered. Backdoors slammed. The alley thinned and then opened up to a crown of parking lot streetlamps that showered me in gold.
It was Safeway. What luck. I needed shampoo and wine. The cashier was a homely old woman with cottony hair and red lipstick smeared on her mouth. “My grandson loves these,” she said, scanning the shampoo. She said the same thing about the wine.
I reached for my purse. I’d left it at Raw. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t have any money.” I didn’t try talking her into letting me have it. Instead, I waited outside, trying to decide if I should go back to Raw or walk the two rainy miles back to my apartment.
Someone touched my shoulder. “I saw you inside,” the guy said. He was tall and thick and held two cases of beer. This was Gabe. “I have some extra cash. If you need those things.”
“It’s fine,” I said. He was handsome, but not in a way that would last.
“Are you walking home?” He motioned toward the rain.
I wondered what he wanted from me. But I knew.
“I’m having a party,” he said.
“I need to go home,” I said, meaning home-home, to Delaware. But he said, “I’ll drive you back if you come to the party,” and I thought, How fun it would be to see if he’d do it.
This, I think now, is how life occurs: through coincidence and avoidance. We do things because we do not want to do other things. I did not want to walk home in the rain so I got in the car with him, Gabe, I had just learned, and rode to his five-bedroom condo just south of campus. In the car I didn’t flinch when he put his hand on my leg. We’re dating now, and I feel like I’ve settled, but that’s another story. This one’s about that night. The party.
It wasn’t a party. Gabe and his roommates were drinking alone in their condo. There were six people in total, including Gabe and me. Three guys, three girls. Gabe and his roommates were second-string cheerleaders for Whitfield University. They were watching the Whitfield football game on TV. When we, meaning Whitfield, scored, they all whispered memorized cheers out of habit.
I sat on the couch, glancing at the door and drinking the sweet red liquid that Gabe had poured in a mug. Time passed. I felt Gabe’s hand on my hand—he says I put mine on his. No matter. His hand ended up on my thigh. On TV, a Whitfield player, the famous one, stripped the ball from an opposing player and scored a touchdown as time expired, winning the game for Whitfield. The male cheerleaders jumped off the couch and hugged each other. Then they hugged me. The female cheerleaders took my hands in theirs and repeated, “Oh My God!”
To celebrate, they practiced their stunts: the guys lay down on their backs and the women stood on the guys’ hands and were lifted slowly into the air, balancing on the guys’ palms. They clapped and cheered, “Whitfield Who? Whitfield U! Whitfield U’s Gonna Beat You Too!”
Gabe asked if I wanted to try it. I shrugged. “Come on.” He yanked me off the couch with a strength I’ve grown fond of. He lay down. I stood on his palms. He pushed up, and I nearly fell over, but one of the women, Kari, supported me until I regained my balance. I clapped and cheered like the other girls had. Standing on the pedestal of Gabe’s hands, I felt blood slide over my lips and my chin. It dripped onto Gabe’s face. He flinched, dropping me. His roommates, thinking he’d done this on purpose, piled on top of us, forming a mess of unsexy bodies, limbs hooked and bent, toenails scraping the backsides of knees, my blood smearing bellies, tangling and tangling until we lost track of ourselves and I looked at my hand, which was right in front my face, and found I couldn’t wiggle my fingers. My hand didn’t move. I assumed I’d been paralyzed. I imagined myself slumped in a chair for the rest of my life, defecating in bags, when the hand that wasn’t really my hand started moving. It grazed my face, swept down my left ear to my cheek to my jaw then up to my mouth, where it wiped the blood from my lips.
Isle McElroy has served as a Writer-in-Residence for the National Parks Service and is currently the International Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, DIAGRAM, Tin House Flash Fridays, and Gigantic Sequins, among other places. Links to more work can be found here.