Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk
When her father finally died, after months of deterioration that was excruciating to witness, Michelle realized she no longer had significant ties to anyone. Her younger brother, her only living relative aside from a long-lost aunt, had left San Diego nine months ago in an RV to "go east" with his band. He sent one postcard, of some railroad tracks in West Virginia, and had not been heard from since. He had not even known that their father was sick.
The funeral was well attended, probably the best argument Michelle had encountered for belonging to a church. In the chapel, photographs of her father were projected on an overhead screen. He was a boy standing on a desolate farm in Indiana, a young man posing stiffly in Dress Blues, and suddenly he was older, heavier, wearing outdated glasses and sweatshirts imprinted with the names of college basketball teams. In each picture he had the same somber, knowing expression, as if he were already aware that people would view these photographs after his death.
The reception, held in the church hall's cafeteria, was crowded and energetic, the doors propped open to let in the spring air. Someone had arranged for cupcakes topped with jimmies, a favorite of her father's. Michelle sat in a metal folding chair and took messy bites of cupcake, not caring that she was getting frosting on her chin and nose, and on the only dress she owned, a floral-print rayon with buttons down the front. Friends of her father's kept stopping at her table to accost her with hugs and tears. They called her Shelly, which had never been her name.
She went to Pacific Beach after the funeral with some friends and got drunk at a bar, still wearing the stained dress. Before going out she'd sloppily applied some makeup over her face, which was broken out from all the stress, and in the bar mirrors her face looked too pale, almost ghostly. One of her friends was going to buy a Vespa and there were arguments over which color was better, powder blue or racing green. She should've been grateful for how normal her friends were acting, but instead she despised them. She had told them not to come to the funeral and they'd agreed too readily. They were friends of convenience, she saw now, who worked together at a coffee shop by the beach. They all wore jeans and flip-flops and hooded sweatshirts with surfing logos, though only the guys actually surfed. Michelle had quit the coffee shop when her father was diagnosed with cancer. Everyone assumed she'd come back now that he was dead.
The next week she spent at her father's house, sleeping at odd hours and sorting through his possessions. She sold his furniture on Craigslist, making almost three thousand dollars. Once the bed was gone—she gave it away as a freebie, tossed in with the dresser—she slept on the floor, using a stack of her father's sweaters as a pillow. In the end, all that was left of her father was a tote bag of things Michelle decided to keep. These included a Marine cap, some photos, and his bank ledger with its tidy rows of penciled numbers, which he'd shown her once during a fruitless lesson on finances. She tried to throw away his stupid leather shoes from the Philippines with the elevated heels, the ones he wore to church to make himself look taller, but those ended up in her bag as well.
It was midnight, but she couldn't sleep. She poured some bourbon into a paper cup—part of her plan to drink up the remains of her father's liquor cabinet—and turned on her laptop. By three a.m. she'd had three cups of bourbon and filled out an online Petition for Change of Name in the State of California. She was surprised that there was no place on the form for her to explain her reasons. She'd wanted to explain how much she'd hated being "Michelle Mc" in school, to distinguish herself from the other Michelle M. She didn't know if this qualified as a reason, were she asked to present her case in front of a judge.
It turned out that the judge didn't have the slightest interest in her reasons. He stamped the appropriate forms, she paid a fee, and it was done. Her name was now Audrey McCarthy. She got a new license at the DMV and a new credit card. She liked to imagine the life Audrey had lived up to now: crisp button-down shirts, perfect skin, an East-coast college. Michelle had gone to community college for a few semesters, earning As in every course she took. When she realized she'd be almost thirty before she could earn even an A.A., she stopped going. She wondered if she'd be able to transfer those credits to her new name. It would probably require too much paperwork, if it were possible at all.
Her father's lawyer came through with an astonishing check, filled out in her old name, for $58,542, and promised more when the house sold. The other half would go to her brother, if he ever turned up. It was a shock that her father had so much money—he'd worn the same pair of khakis for nearly ten years. Michelle didn't know what to do with the check. She'd already decided to close out her bank account and move somewhere else, although she didn't yet know where. The lawyer advised her to cash it into traveler's checks. Even though the checks were supposedly replaceable, she worried that she would lose them. She started carrying them in a wad stuffed inside her bra, noticeable beneath her hoodie, but only if someone were looking. The truth was that not many men bothered looking at Michelle. She didn't think she was unattractive—on certain days she looked in the mirror and judged herself as pretty—but for whatever reason she was invisible to strangers. It was common for people, both men and women, to bump into her on a relatively unpopulated street, and then look surprised to see someone standing there.
After an afternoon of sitting on a beach and staring into the ocean, Michelle decided she would go to Boston. It was far enough away, but she would still be near water. She would be free of vulgar salmon-pink buildings like the one she lived in now. She bought a plane ticket online, charging it to her new credit card stamped with her new name.
A startled real estate agent accepted Michelle's deposit, paid in hundred-dollar bills, on an apartment with bay windows in the upscale neighborhood of Brookline. She was embarrassed for the agent to see her beat-up plastic suitcase covered with stickers of band logos and a marijuana leaf, so she left it behind a shrub and retrieved it after she was given the keys. The apartment's faux-lace curtains billowed inside the room when she pushed open the windows. She took them down and threw them inside the closet. She did not want anything interfering with her view outside. It was June and the trees were flowering. Across the street, yellow tulips bloomed in front of a pristine brownstone. A man was carrying a little girl in a red dress up the steps. Michelle could see the red bows at the ends of the girl's braids. She had not expected Boston to be so sunny and vivid. In her imagination it had been all browns and grays.
The apartment was an empty expanse of freshly waxed wood floors. She would buy a bed and just one table that she would keep clear except for a vase of flowers. Her apartment in San Diego had been cramped and dirty and stuffed with all manner of junk that she had to pay someone to dispose of. Now she was in a clean space, and her head felt clearer. She was no longer thinking every day of the images of her father projected on the chapel screen, and the unphotographed image of him at the end, skeletal and ruined. On her laptop were dozens of photos of her father eating various fried foods at the Del Mar Fair, taken for her photography class at the community college, but she wasn't planning on looking at them.
She had no idea what kind of work to look for, or what kind she was even qualified for. Audrey would've worked in an office, most definitely, wearing a skirt and heels, so Michelle spent the better part of a sunny day in the crush of shoppers at Filene's Basement, where fashionable women rummaged purposefully through huge bins of purses and panties. She could not understand what they were looking for. But Audrey would not have felt that way. Audrey would know what she wanted, and she'd have the money to buy it. Michelle forced herself to select some business clothes from one of the racks. She waited in line to go into a communal dressing room walled with mirrors. Michelle was astonished to see women with unappealing figures striding around the room half nude. She went to a corner and tried on her clothes as quickly as possible, keeping her gaze on the carpet before remembering that Audrey would not act like that. In a red skirt and blazer, Michelle threw back her shoulders and stared into the mirror.
"Honey, you should go with that," said a woman with pendulous breasts who was naked except for a pair of parachute pants.
"Really?" Michelle said.
"How much are they asking?" The woman grabbed the price tag on Michelle's sleeve. "Well, it's too much, but still. It's gorgeous on you. You're so skinny I could just hate you."
In the mirror Michelle saw that she was blushing. "Yeah, I think I'll get it," she said out loud, but the woman already was talking to someone else.
Brenda, a recruiter from the temp agency, was black and heavy-set. She blotted oil from her face with a tissue as she scanned Michelle's application.
"You type fast. Did you take lessons?"
"No. I just learned by typing, I guess."
Brenda rubbed her forehead with the tissue and sighed. "I can get you into data entry, which is absolutely as boring as it sounds."
"Okay," Michelle said.
"I think you'll be bored. But at least you don't need to wear a suit. Just some regular black pants will do. Basically you can wear anything."
Michelle ran her hands over her skirt, smoothing out the fabric. She asked if there was something she could do that would require her to wear a suit. She had just bought a closetful of suits, she told Brenda with an awkward laugh.
Brenda gave her a strange look. "You want to wear a suit. All rightie. Well, if you had a college degree, I could get you into a nice admin position, somewhere with swank."
"But I don't," Michelle said.
"How about I put down Boston University?" Brenda said, her pen poised over the application.
"Really? Isn't that—? It's not true."
"Audrey, it's just an admin position. You're not applying to be God. You want me to put it down or not? You had some college, somewhere, right?"
"Right," she said.
The following Monday Audrey went to work at a software company as an executive assistant. She got up early and washed her hair and set it in curlers. She put on her red suit, pantyhose, and heels. She had bought some eye makeup at the convenience store, and she looked up a video on YouTube to see how she should apply it.
Audrey was relieved she had lied on the temp application. She saw the homely, middle-aged women who did data entry—they drank coffee all day just to stay awake. Her job was easy, easier in fact than fulfilling people's complicated whims at the coffee counter. She typed letters, sent faxes, made copies, and scheduled appointments on the phone. The hardest part was mastering the phone system with its flashing lights and colored buttons, each with a particular meaning. A few times she sent calls to the wrong place, and when she apologized to her boss, she heard a weak tone in her voice, a remnant of Michelle. It was important to Audrey not to screw up, not to ever have to apologize for herself. Michelle used to go to work hung over with her unwashed hair in a sloppy ponytail. Audrey only drank green tea during the week and got up early to do her hair while watching the Today show. On the weekends she cleaned her apartment and took long, aimless walks through Boston, sometimes getting lost and panicking until she figured out where she was. In the evenings she went to bars or the movies with people she met at work, but she stayed away from one-on-one conversations. She wasn't clear enough on the details of Audrey's upbringing to talk convincingly about it, and she certainly didn't want to talk about Michelle.
By the time winter came, Audrey had gotten a raise and a promotion, and she was moved from her cubicle into a windowless office with a door. Now she was called a "Project Manager," which meant that she basically did the same things, only people treated her better.
It was around this time that she was walking up the stairs from the subway platform and caught sight of her brother in the rush-hour crowd. At least it looked like her brother, except that his hair was cut short and he was wearing an expensive-looking overcoat instead of his leather jacket with spikes on the shoulders. In an instant he was gone, and she wasn't sure if she had seen him at all. Back at her apartment she rummaged through the photos that she'd taken from her father's house and found one of her brother as a young boy. He was grinning, a plastic machine gun slung over his shoulder. She'd hardly seen her brother in the past few years, so how could he possibly make her feel sad? With shaking hands Audrey started to tear the photograph in half. Just as she began to do it, she changed her mind, but the picture was already wrinkled and marred by her sweaty fingerprints. She quickly buried it beneath the other pictures and put the box away.
Winter in Boston was colder than anything she could've imagined. Audrey bought a down coat and a cashmere scarf and a special kind of silky undershirt that was supposed to seal the heat in. Still, she was always cold. The pathetic heater in her apartment churned out only a whisper of heat, which was probably why the place had been priced so low. Audrey bought several space heaters and had them going all the time when she was at home. She came down with a bad cold and realized that there was no one she could call, no one who would go to the store for her and bring back Nyquil and a can of chicken soup. She was about to call Diane, one of Michelle's friends from the coffee shop in San Diego, before realizing that she hadn't transferred any of the old numbers to her new phone.
She spent the next day home from work. She ordered a pizza to avoid having to go out, and she ate it in bed, stopping frequently to blow her nose. Her bed was strewn with tissues, and her nose was raw and bleeding. She opened her laptop and began to look at the pictures of her father. In one of them he was pretending to eat a chocolate éclair in one bite, looking at her as if to say, Have you got the picture already? She started to cry, and soon she was heaving with sobs. She used the corner of her bedspread to wipe her face and nose. Eventually she fell asleep, the pizza box still on her bed, leaking oil onto the sheets.
The next time she saw her brother was at a loud, expensive restaurant in Back Bay. It was still winter, which seemed incredibly unjust to Audrey, since she associated March with spring break trips to Ensenada Beach in Mexico. She had gone to the restaurant on a date with Charlie O'Malley, who wore argyle sweaters beneath a gray wool blazer and had a thick Boston accent. He called her McCarthy, which she liked, and he never asked her questions at all. Instead he kept up a stream of banter and ironic commentary. Audrey had never known anyone like this. In San Diego people were not ironic—maybe it was not possible with so much sunshine.
From the bar where she sat with Charlie, Audrey spotted her brother in a mirror. He was sitting at a long table with a group of people who looked like they worked in an office. Everyone at the table was talking and laughing. What could her brother possibly be doing in Boston, working in an office? She'd known him as a barely employed slacker, prone to bursts of energy when he would stay up all night writing songs. Once he spent an entire weekend building a fifteen-foot-tall pyramid of beer bottles that ended up being photographed for an architectural magazine.
"That's my brother," Audrey told Charlie, pointing into the mirror. "Don't turn around."
Charlie turned around. "Which one?"
"Stop turning. The one in the light blue sweater."
"You're telling me that's your brother? The one in the blue? Jesus, he's like Steve Buscemi without the good looks. What kind of game are you playing, McCarthy?"
Did they look alike, she and her brother? It was something Audrey had never considered before. She could have gone over to his table, but what if it wasn't him after all? The man who might have been her brother was engaged in conversation, his elbows on the tablecloth, looking perfectly content with his new life.
"There's a lot you don't know about me," Audrey said to Charlie. She turned to face him and brought her glass of wine to her lips.
"Yeah? Like what? What size bra do you wear, McCarthy?"
"I know you'll never know," Audrey said.
"Oh, funny girl. We'll get you more wine and see about that. What do you say to Barolo? We're having pasta, right?"
Charlie was the sort of person who would order Dom Perignon for the entire table on a dare, laughing and calling out insults to his friends as he signed the bill. Audrey liked his extravagant gestures, the fact that he always ordered way too much food just so that she could sample everything. He was stunned that she'd never had an oyster, never eaten beef carpaccio, never skied, never gone to the Cape. He wanted to introduce her to all of these things.
By the time they were seated at their table, Audrey was nearly drunk. There was a new group of people at the table where her brother had been. Later, as Charlie was devouring a slice of tiramisu, he said, "Was that really your brother, McCarthy?"
"Everyone here is my brother," Audrey said, waving her fork.
Charlie sighed and rolled his eyes. "You're wicked sheisty is what you are, friend. Why the hell were you saying that's your brother?"
Audrey laughed, holding the corners of the table. "I don't know, Malley," she said, wiping her eyes.
A year later she and Charlie got married at Our Lady of Victories Catholic Church downtown. The soaring gothic arches and stained glass and polished wooden pews made Audrey feel small and nervous. She wore a strapless princess dress with a lace train that followed her up the red-carpeted aisle. The priest, a friend of Charlie's parents, accepted at her word that she had been raised as a Catholic, even though she wasn't able to give him her saint's name. Her story was that she'd lived in San Francisco all her life until college, and her parents had died when she was twenty in a boating accident. She had researched the whole thing online and was prepared for the follow-up questions, but no one bothered to ask her for any more detail. She was almost frustrated by how willingly they believed her story, which sounded absolutely absurd as she recounted it. It was as though they didn't care much who she was as long as Charlie was happy with her, and he was. He was profligate with his gifts and affection. By the time they were married Audrey had a whole drawer dedicated to the jewelry he'd given her. As Michelle, she had never owned any jewelry at all, aside from a silver and amber ring that her father had once bought her at the fairgrounds. That ring had been lost, when and where she didn't know.
Apparently she was not expected to work any more, but she told Charlie that she wanted to, and he agreed in a way that implied he was indulging her. By now she was an executive at the software company. Her assistant, a man just out of college, had asked for her diploma so that he could frame it for her new office. He was as excited for her as if he'd been given the job and the glamorous office himself. She kept stalling, saying that she had misplaced it when she moved into Charlie's place. Part of her wished that someone would discover her lie and interrogate her; the thrill of possibly being caught had made her job more interesting than it really was. Now it seemed possible that even if she confessed what she'd done, no one would care.
She and Charlie spent their honeymoon in Cabo San Lucas. Audrey didn't understand why it felt so good to be in Mexico again. She had never been further south than Ensenada before, but somehow Mexico felt like home. A person couldn't grow up in San Diego without learning some Spanish, and Audrey knew enough to order meals and chat with the waiters. Charlie was impressed. In Mexico he looked chubby and sunburnt and out of place. He utterly mangled the word "gracias," and Audrey felt sorry for him. He was completely transparent, incapable of disguising or moderating his emotions, but he knew nothing about Audrey—about her real life. Occasionally, when she'd had too much to drink, she had an urge to tell him everything. She had no idea, not an inkling, of how he would react. That was the one mystery about Charlie. Would he clasp her into a hug? Would he refuse to look at her, refuse to talk to her? Would he yell accusations? Would he laugh the whole thing off, refusing to believe she was serious? Would he even hear what she was saying? She could not take the chance of finding out.
On the last night of the honeymoon, Charlie drank too much and passed out. Audrey tried to sleep but couldn't. She slipped on a dress and sandals and went outside. One of the beach cafes was still open, the music blaring. There was a group of young surfer types, the sort of people Michelle used to know, sitting at a table covered in seashells that were being employed in a drinking game. Audrey sat down at a nearby table and ordered a beer. She smiled at the surfers, hoping they would talk to her. After spending the entire day alone on the beach—Charlie had stayed in room, reading a crime novel and keeping out of the sun—she was eager for conversation.
"Where are you from?" one of them called out to her.
Audrey almost said San Diego before she caught herself. "The East Coast. Boston."
"Cold there this time of year, huh?" said a girl with long, damp blond hair, who resembled Diane from the coffee shop.
"Way too cold. I used to live in San Diego."
They told her they'd driven from L.A. to Mexico in a Volkswagen van, which had broken down twice and had to be pushed in order to start. They had ditched the van and were planning to buy motorcycles and ride all the way down into South America. The stories of their adventures had Audrey laughing so hard that she was crying.
"Look," said the blonde in a conspiratorial voice, and Audrey's heart leapt. For an instant she thought they were going to ask her to go with them to South America. The girl continued: "I know it's totally lame to ask you this, but do you have twenty dollars? Or fifty? Something you can loan us so we can eat in the morning?"
"Come on, leave her alone," said one of the men—a boy, really. He was bare-chested, still wearing his swimming shorts.
"I shouldn't have asked. I interrupted your beer," said the blonde.
"No, it's fine." As Audrey opened her wallet, the votive on the table caught the light of her diamond rings, and suddenly she felt afraid. What if they followed her on her way back to her hotel room? She was a fool for thinking they had genuinely liked her.
"Here." She placed two twenties in the girl's hand and got up to leave.
They shouted their thanks as she walked away.
It was not long before Audrey was pregnant, and she was proud of the fact that she continued going to the office, even in her eighth month. One insufferably humid day in August, Audrey was standing on the subway platform when she had a wave of vertigo. The train arrived, but she did not get on. Instead she labored up the stairs to the street. The sun was blinding. Dizzy and nauseous, Audrey walked down the street, taking deep breaths. She had stopped and taken hold of a frail, leafless city tree when she saw her brother like a phantasm coming towards her. This was her real brother, in ripped jeans and a Pavement T-shirt, stubble on his face.
"James," she called out, when he was already past her.
He turned around and briefly glanced at her, then kept walking. Had he recognized her? Was it possible that he'd recognized her and intentionally walked away? She felt panicked. What if she never saw him again? He was already so far away that she had to yell.
"James, it's Michelle. Your sister, Michelle."
She was tempted to run after him, but she was too queasy, too exhausted. Besides, what was the point? James wasn't even her brother anymore, not really. She had no family anymore, no friends that knew her. Turning back to the subway entrance, Audrey was startled by her reflection in a glass office building. She was hugely pregnant and sweating through her pink silk sheath. Her hair was coming loose from its French twist. Michelle would never have worn her hair in a twist; she never would've worn anything that required dry cleaning or even ironing. She had taken pride in not caring about appearances, in being straightforward and sincere. Audrey stared into the glass, trying to imagine what Michelle would look like now, but she couldn't picture it.
Jennifer Hurley's fiction has previously appeared in Front Porch, The Mississippi Review, The Arroyo Literary Review, Stone's Throw Magazine, Natural Bridge, Brain Harvest, Slow Trains, and of course, Toasted Cheese. Website: jen-hurley.com. Email: jenhurley[at]alum.bu.edu