He Never Loved You
There was no good way to dress. Her stepfather was dead, and Vanessa had hated him most of her life. Now there was his funeral. She stood in front of her closet, an oversized shoebox at the back of her efficiency apartment, and shuffled the hangers. She didn’t own a black dress. The one dress she owned, red with a plunging neckline, was too tight. Work and college had made her fat. She closed the door, and pulled a crate from under her bed. There was a black sweater, bulky and conservative. She dug deeper and found black slacks. The tag said: size six. Not even close. She opened her bottom dresser drawer. Everything was mauve or baby blue. She liked spring colors. She once painted her toenails yellow. Her blonde hair, back in high school, had magenta streaks.
She looked at the clock. She had two hours. Her head hurt. The older she got, the worse the hangovers. Last night, she came home from work, showered, and drank six cans of Bud. She hated Bud, and she hated cans, but that’s where she was. The night before that, Friday, her first Friday off in two months, she’d gone to Harry’s Bar on Maple Avenue, a couple miles from campus and down the block from the restaurant where she waited tables.
She was a regular at Harry’s. The old lady who owned the place knew Vanessa’s drink, Absolut and Cranberry. It was on the bar before Vanessa could find a stool. Vanessa always tipped a dollar. She always put a five in the jukebox, sat back down, and ate a handful of popcorn from a bowl that had recently been filled. She loved these things. It was important to Vanessa to be a regular, to have somewhere to go after work, somewhere to lose an hour between classes. Her apartment was tiny and cramped and sometimes smelled like ground meat. She needed a home.
Because of this, because she believed in bars and her place at the bar, she did not ever meet men or flirt with men or sleep with men she met at Harry’s. She played darts. She drank shots. She danced to the jukebox if she felt moved. She liked to hug people when she was drunk and happy, but she didn’t make advances or lead guys on.
And then she did.
Davey was twenty-one. Vanessa was not. She had been in college, colleges, for almost twelve years, picking up credits she couldn’t use and switching majors at will. Now she was a psych major. She thought she might go to grad school for social work. She thought she might like to work with teenage girls in trouble. More semesters. More studying. More student loans. More years of driving a 1997 Ford Taurus. Maybe she couldn’t help anyone. Davey wanted to help her. He was her workshop partner in Introduction to Poetry. He was cute. He was tall and thin with black hair and a little jazz patch on his chin. He always smelled like cigarettes and soap. Before class, in the computer lab, he looked at her poems and cut lines and added words. During class, he positioned his tests so Vanessa could see his answers. Vanessa was not above this. She wanted to finish school. She hated poetry. It was another elective she didn’t want.
When Vanessa had walked in to Harry’s on Friday night, she waved at the bartender and the bartender delivered her drink, and there, down the bar, on a stool, looking young and beautiful and confident, was Davey, drinking a Pabst in a bottle.
“What are you doing here?” Vanessa said.
“I’m here all the time,” Davey said.
“You’re not here all the time,” Vanessa said and laughed. “I’m here all the time.”
Davey took a drink of his Pabst and said, “Then why haven’t I seen you here before?” and raised his eyebrows in a way that was both ridiculous and sexy.
Vanessa sat down next to him and smelled—despite the beer and cigarettes—cinnamon. Cinnamon, not like gum, not like Trident or Dentyne, but like a muffin or fresh baked bread. On a young man. Cinnamon.
She said, “You smell like a cookie.”
He said, “I work in a bakery.”
She said, “You’re kidding? Why didn’t you ever tell me that?”
“What’s up with your poems?” he said. “They’re pretty bad.”
She said, “I’m not trying to be a poet. I want to be a social worker.”
“I want to be a poet,” he said.
“Of course you do,” she said, and bought him another Pabst, a beer she despised, and hated herself a little for knowing in advance she was going to take him home.
She pulled out a blue knit dress. If her mother wouldn’t have been hurt, she would have worn pink. Pink to celebrate the death of her stepfather. Pink shoes, white tights, pink sweater. Ding dong, the witch is dead! She would have worn a bonnet, something ridiculously pretty, a white one with blue flowers like her stepfather used to make her wear when she was a kid and they went to church three times during Easter week.
It was Sunday. She’d never been to a Sunday funeral. She didn’t even know that you could have a service like that. Her stepfather had been a born-again Christian. Maybe he’d planned this. His own special day with god.
Her stepfather was fat, especially around the middle. He had hairy man-boobs and chicken legs that looked like they were about to crumble under the weight of his stomach. “This is my weakness,” he once said to Vanessa, pointing to the pie he was inhaling, when she was fifteen and had been caught with beer. “I’m a glutton,” he said. “Maybe you’re an alcoholic. We all have struggles.” He was trying to be sweet, taking her to a diner before taking her home and grounding her for a month, but he didn’t understand sweetness, not in any real way, just like he didn’t understand forgiveness, which was all everyone at church talked about. If he did, he wouldn’t have grounded her. He would have kissed her forehead and let her try again. He would have had the pie and not been ashamed.
Vanessa pushed her soup away and said, “Just because you’re fat doesn’t mean I’m an alcoholic. I had three beers over four hours. I was under the limit. I could have legally driven home.” Her stepfather looked at her, and this was beyond him, a child, a teenager not his own, talking this way. He hated it, and maybe Vanessa, and this made him sarcastic. He waved his fork in the air at the waitress who was cleaning the salad bar, pointed at his plate, turned back to Vanessa, and said, “Well, I’ll have another piece of chocolate cream, and you can drive us home then. Thanks, know-it-all.”
The pie finally caught him. The burgers and chips, too. His heart stopped on the seventh hole at Caradam, a public golf course open to anyone with twelve bucks and a set of clubs. One of her stepfather’s friends, Hank Kearns, a recovering alcoholic, new to golf, new to Christianity, stood by and watched, horrified. He didn’t own a cell phone. He didn’t own anything. He’d lost his wife, then his house, then his job. He was only twenty-nine, Vanessa’s age. They’d purposely not rented a cart, so they could get some exercise. Hank screamed for a while, hoping someone would come. He held Vanessa’s stepfather’s hand. Then he ran to the clubhouse, and waited for the ambulance, feeling like he’d done this somehow, with his drinking and lack of faith.
So said Vanessa’s mother on the phone three days ago when she’d called with the news. “Your stepfather passed,” she’d said. “It’s okay that you never loved him.”
“I loved him,” Vanessa said, but it was a lie, and they both knew it. She’d once told the man, “If god smites anyone, it should be you. You deserve his smite.” Now, all these years later, she couldn’t even remember what it meant to be smited or even how to smite someone else, someone like her dead stepfather.
She held up the blue knit dress and looked in the mirror. She wished she could lose some weight. She had been thin for years without trying, and then, suddenly, she wasn’t. One day, after classes and a double shift at the Baggy Knee, where she ate about ten thousand calories of French fries while she walked in and out of the kitchen, she came home and found a belly, a real potbelly, when she was lathering up in the shower. It was fine. The belly. Her boobs didn’t gain much, but her butt had filled out nicely. She could have loved her new figure if she could have afforded new clothes.
Blue dress, black tights, she thought, that’s as dark as I get. She looked at the clock, and decided there was plenty of time for a nap.
The knocks on the door startled her. She was in sweatpants, a wife-beater, and her wet hair was in a braid. She was sleeping on her back so she wouldn’t get any pillow lines on her face. She was drooling.
“Hold on,” she said.
She hated when her mom was early. Her mom was always early. Vanessa sat up. She adjusted her top. She stumbled to the door where her mom was making like a machine gun on the wood frame.
“Okay,” she said, and when she opened the door, it was Davey, all six feet and twenty-one years, clutching a huge bouquet of red roses.
“Jesus,” she said, completely surprised. “It’s you.” She said, “What are those?”
“They’re roses,” he said. “Thirteen. It’s like a baker’s dozen.”
She said, “That’s a lot of flowers.” She said, “Wow. Davey. I mean, those aren’t necessary.” She didn’t know if this sounded mean or if mean was what she wanted. She said, “I’m serious, those are nice, but they aren’t necessary. Or even realistic.”
But she didn’t stop him when he stepped into her apartment, even though it was a mess, even though he’d slept here two nights before, his young man snores keeping her awake until morning.
“The flowers are sweet,” she said. “Really.”
She was a good person. She could say nice things. Almost everything, if done properly, could be done in decent way. A cigarette. A blindfold.
“I know they’re sweet,” he said. “That’s why I brought them.”
“Well, thank you,” she said, and she meant it on some practical level. No one, ever, had given her more than a carnation.
Davey said, “I wanted to come earlier and bring fresh bread, but someone called off and I got stuck working an extra shift.” He looked around her apartment. He said, “It looks different sober.”
He was in a black t-shirt and jeans. Everything was lightly dusted with flour, even his short hair. Vanessa wanted to smell him. She wanted to lean in to his chest and inhale.
She said, “There’s nothing here. It can’t look different.”
“There’s that picture,” he said. “I didn’t see that before. Who’s the guy?”
The photo was of Vanessa and her mom, at a New Year’s Eve party two years ago. Her stepbrother had managed to edge in on the photo, smiling like the idiot he was.
She said, “That’s my stepbrother. He’s a douche.”
“Just is. Always was. He’s ten years older than me.”
Vanessa remembered her stepbrother flicking her ear and thinking it was funny. He was in college. She was eleven or twelve. Flick, flick. Tears. It wasn’t just the humiliation, but the physical pain. Later, when she made it through puberty, he tried to feel her tit. She was on the couch, dozing, and when she realized what he was doing, she grabbed his hand and said, “Why are you trying to touch my tit?” He said, “I’m not.” He turned on one of his creepy weird smiles and said. “I was checking for lumps.”
Now Vanessa turned to Davey and said, “I’m kind of in a hurry.”
Davey said, “Did you skip the bar last night to avoid me?”
She said, “No.” She said, “Of course I did.”
Vanessa thought about her stepbrother and how weak he was, what a gross coward he was, and how lucky she had been, because if he would have been strong, he would have hurt her. She was sure of it. And she was sure her stepfather would have allowed it. She looked at her blue dress folded neatly on the bed. She thought she would tell her mom, who she loved, her mom who had done everything she could to get Vanessa a home in the suburbs, away from her real father who wanted to drive race cars and sleep with biker chicks—Vanessa thought she would say, “Mom, I can’t. I’m sorry, but I just can’t. It’s not that I didn’t love him, but that I hated him, and god, and his kids.” She thought she would say, “They wanted to kill me,” even if they didn’t want to kill her, even if she only remembered it that way.
Vanessa looked at Davey and said, “I like you. You’re great. I really appreciate you helping me in poetry class. But you’re too young for me.”
Davey said, “I don’t help you in poetry class. I do your work. All of it.”
Vanessa said, “Fine, you let me cheat off you. I’m a cheater. Thank you.”
“I’m not too young.”
“You think you’re not too young.”
“I’m not. I’m the same as you.”
Davey walked over to Vanessa’s desk, her only piece of furniture that wasn’t a bed or dresser. He pulled out the chair but didn’t sit down.
She said, “Davey, thank you for the flowers. I really do appreciate them.”
He said, “You’re welcome.”
She said, “I have to get dressed for a funeral.”
He stacked her papers, moved her textbooks, and sat down on the desk. He said, “You want me to come?” He said, “I could come. Both my parents are dead. I know funerals. I have other clothes.”
She said, “Thank you, but no.”
He said, “I own a house. It’s not big. It needs new furnace. When my parents died, there was insurance money. I bought a house. My sister spent her share on shoes. She has like ten thousand pairs of shoes, and she lives with a guy who won’t let her have any friends. He’s a state cop in Philly.”
Vanessa was tired. She needed aspirin. She never had anything in her medicine cabinet. There were a couple Buds in the fridge, but she didn’t think she could face a can of beer. She knew she would get through this day, because she got through every day, and then it would be better, but it didn’t feel like it right now.
She said, “Davey, I want to help you. But, honestly, what can I do for you?”
He said, “I don’t want help.” He said, “Let me come to the funeral. I really like you. Why’s that so hard to believe? I have a fulltime job at the bakery, and I own a house, and I go to school. You should let me come to the funeral. I’ll beat up your stepbrother.”
Vanessa said, “You don’t even know who died.”
“Your stepdad,” he said. “How drunk were you when we fucked?”
“Oh god,” she said. “You’re making this weird, and you were such a nice fuzzy memory until you showed up at my door.”
Davey stood up and went to her cabinet which was in the corner of her apartment that was supposed to be her kitchen. He opened the door and said, “I know you don’t have a vase, but I thought you’d have a wine bottle or something.”
Vanessa looked at the roses and said, “I have a vase,” because she wanted to the kind of person who had vases, who knew flowers were always on the way.
Vanessa agreed to see Davey again. Maybe not a date, but a drink. He could stop over some time. She would see him at the bar. They would get something to eat between classes. She didn’t know if any of this was true, but she said it to make him leave. The funeral was looming. Her mom was almost here.
Davey said, “I haven’t had a lot of girlfriends.”
Vanessa said, “That’s because you’re twenty-one.”
Davey said, “You didn’t le me finish. I was going to say I haven’t had a lot of girlfriends because I don’t get along with girls my age.”
“Maybe you should try,” Vanessa said.
“Yeah,” Davey said, smiling, rubbing his hairy bottom lip. “When you were twenty-one, did you date any bakers who were studying poetry?”
Vanessa moved into the bathroom with her blue dress. She came back for the roses and put them in the shower. She’d have to wear the same panties because she didn’t feel like she could pull out a clean pair in front of Davey, even though he’d seen her naked already. She closed the door but not the whole way.
She said, “A baker poet would have been great when I was twenty-one. I was dating cokehead lawyers who thought they were gods.”
Davey said, “Could I come in there? I’ll sit on the toilet and we can talk.”
Vanessa was naked. She remembered she needed tights. If she went digging for tights, she might as well dig out some clean underwear.
She peeked out from the bathroom door and said, “Davey, I’ll see you soon.”
He said, “Do you know what you’re going to say yet?”
She sighed and said, “I said yes. I said we’ll see each other again.”
“Not me,” he said. “At the funeral.” He’d moved to her bed. He was stretched out. His shoes were off, and the bottoms of his white socks were dirty brown.
She said, “Nothing. He was my stepfather. I hated him. Why would I say something at his funeral?”
“That’s what people expect.”
“The ones who will want you to speak.”
“No, they won’t. I haven’t said ten words to the guy in years.”
“They’ll want you to speak,” he said. “A poem or something.”
She hadn’t thought of this, and it sounded awful enough to be true. All that fakery. All those lies people tell about dead people when they should finally be telling the truth. God. Her stepfather. Eulogized. She couldn’t do it. She didn’t want that world. She wanted to be true. She wanted to step naked from the bathroom and walk to Davey and lay with him on the bed and do what they’d done on Friday night, only sober, only better.
Then she hated him for being here, for knowing so much about funerals and her life when all she’d done was buy him a Pabst and cheat off his tests. She had built her life on one principal: men were bad. Not all men. Not most men. Just the men that had made her, the men that had come to her mother with their bodies and promises.
“I could write you something,” he said.
“You can leave, Davey,” she said, sticking her face out the door. “Now.”
“Could I kiss you first?” he said.
She stepped back into the bathroom. She looked at her face in the mirror. It was a beautiful face if you really looked at it, if you were twenty-one and a baker and a poet, and if you looked at it instead of the rest of the world. She opened the door.
“The sick thing here is that I want you to kiss me,” she said as she came from the bathroom without even her towel.
Vanessa’s mom, Angeline, looked beautiful. She wore a brand new black dress, black hose with little paisley designs, and black high heels. She was only forty-seven. She looked thirty-five. She’d started exercising when she’d turned forty and the years had rolled back. Her hair was newly dyed black. There was a gray streak in her bangs, but she wanted it that way.
Vanessa modeled her dress and felt like a schlub.
Angeline said, “Blue is an excellent color. I wasn’t even hoping for black.”
Vanessa said, “I don’t own any black.”
Angeline said, “I was afraid you were going to wear yellow.”
Vanessa said, “I don’t have a purse. A fancy purse.”
Angeline said, “Oh, who cares?” and dismissed the whole thing.
Vanessa picked up her ID and some money that she always kept clipped together. Her mom sat on the bed. She stretched out her legs and smoothed her skirt.
Vanessa said, “We’re going to be late.”
Her mom said, “We have time.”
Vanessa stopped by the door and said, “Are you okay?”
She meant it. She would have, more than anything, wanted to know what her mother was feeling at that moment, but she knew that it wasn’t possible. Angeline had always made Vanessa feel loved. The rest was a mystery.
Vanessa said, “Really. I know you don’t like to talk about this, but we can talk about this. Tell me if you’re okay.”
Angeline sat on the bed. She picked a piece of lint from her skirt. She looked confused, something she seldom was. Vanessa walked to the bed and sat down. She wished she would have washed the sheets. She pictured Davey there, and wondered what she wanted. Romance, even sex with too much emotion, sober sex, made her feel foolish. Everything made her feel foolish. College. Love. Holding hands. If she wasn’t at Harry’s Bar or waiting tables, she felt like a dope.
“No, I’m not okay,” Angeline said.
She reached out and took Vanessa’s hand. Vanessa looked at her mom. Angeline was not crying. She was not, as far as Vanessa could tell, sad.
Angeline said, “My husband just died. I’ve been two nights at the funeral home, talking to his friends, and now we’re going to do the same thing again, and then drop him in a hole at the cemetery. That’s it, I guess. I’m not okay.”
Vanessa looked at her mom. She said, “You look okay.”
Angeline said, “I don’t know. Maybe I feel okay.”
Vanessa knew Angeline had never loved her stepfather, that she’d married for safety and for Vanessa, for the chance to get away from the South Side Slopes where she’d been raised. Vanessa also knew that her mother would never admit this, or that she would say, as she had before, “There’s all kinds of love.”
Vanessa said the only kind thing she could think to say, “You were a good wife.”
Angeline picked up a pillow and covered her lap. She said, “Vanessa, you and I both know I was better than that.”
Angeline wanted a beer. She was not a drinker. Her husband didn’t believe in it, so it was never around. Vanessa had two cans of Bud left in the fridge. She cracked the tops, and handed her mom a can.
Angeline said, “People still drink Bud?”
Vanessa said, “Unfortunately, yes.”
“Bud’s good, isn’t it?”
“Bud is not good anymore.”
“Well, what’s good?” Angeline said, delicately sipping from the can.
Vanessa said, “I don’t know. Anything but Bud.”
Angeline said, “Don’t hate me.”
They were on the bed together, in their funeral clothes, under the covers. It was warm there. It was warm outside but Vanessa’s basement apartment, even in June, was cool and damp. Vanessa drank some Bud. It was not as bad when you were drinking it to help with something, like a hangover or a funeral.
Vanessa said, “How could I ever hate you?”
Angeline drank off her beer. She swallowed, stopped, and let out a delicate burp. She said, “Randy wants you to say something.”
Randy was Vanessa’s stepbrother.
“At the funeral?”
“Yes, at the funeral. Come on, Vanessa. You’re in college. Use your head.”
“Because they’re church people. It’s what they do. Image is everything. You’re the loving stepdaughter.”
This is where Vanessa should have used the speech she’d planned: no, I can’t; I hate him; I hate god; and etc..
She said, “Ah, Mom, please,” and she knew she sounded twelve.
Angeline said, “There’s money in it.”
Vanessa sat up a little. She said, “You want to pay me? That’s insulting.” Vanessa looked her mom, her gray streak falling across her blue eyes. “You know I’d do anything for you,” which was not true, but it felt right to say.
“Not money for reading something. Pay attention.” Angeline snapped at Vanessa three times. “Come back to me. You’re in the will. It’s not a lot. He didn’t think you were college material, but if you graduated, he wanted you to have something. Like a reward.”
Vanessa said, “I don’t want his money,” but she did, desperately.
Angeline looked at her daughter. She said, “Are you kidding me?”
Vanessa thought of her mom, her beautiful young mother, in bed all those years, with someone she didn’t love. She looked away. It didn’t matter how much money. She wanted it, more than was rightfully hers.
Angeline said, “Randy is co-executor. That means he’s half in charge. I don’t want to fight him on anything. Just go along with this. Play nice.”
Vanessa said, “What will I say?”
“You’ll think of something.”
Vanessa thought of her stepfather. She started to write the speech in her head: he was fat and liked golf; he hated me; I hated him back. She tried to remember something positive. He was great with hamburgers and the grill.
Angeline said, “It will be fine.”
Vanessa said, “Randy touched my tit. When I was fourteen.”
Angeline pulled off the covers and let her legs fall to the floor. She stood up and found her purse. She said, “I know. He told. He told his father. He didn’t mean it, honey. He got confused. It was confusing for everyone. We made him promise it would never happen again. And it didn’t.” She paused then asked, “Correct?”
Vanessa said, “Correct.” She felt embarrassed for even remembering the moment, let alone making it something else.
Angeline said, “Take your own car. Come to the funeral. You can scooch away before we get to the cemetery.”
Vanessa said, “I don’t mind. I’ll stay with you.”
Angeline smiled and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll cover.”
Outside, there was Davey. He was in his old Volkswagen Jetta, a tablet on the steering wheel, a pen in his hand. He looked at Vanessa and waved. The sun was bright, and Vanessa shielded her eyes. She’d always wanted expensive sunglasses.
Angeline said, “Whos’s that boy? He’s cute.”
Vanessa said, “That boy is Davey,” and walked towards his car.
The window to the Jetta was down. The engine was running. Vanessa didn’t know if Davey had been waiting or if he’d left and come back.
She said, “Hey.”
Davey said, “Your mom’s hot.”
She laughed and said, “I know my mom’s hot. I’ll tell her you think so.”
Davy said, “I wrote you something. I didn’t know your stepfather, so I kept it general, but I think it will work. It’s sort of a bad poem type thing.”
He extended the tablet through the open window and Vanessa took it.
He said, “I won’t ask to kiss you in front of your mom.”
Vanessa looked at the words on the yellow paper. The page was full. Davey’s dark square printed letters marched across each line. A few places were scratched out. Mostly, it was clean. She leaned down towards his face, and, in the shade of his car, she could see the tiny lines around his eyes, the patch of hair below his lip, that it might have had a few gray hairs mixed in or at least some blonde.
“Do you like it?” he said.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You can kiss me.”