Authors: Sarah Bruni
Table of Contents
About the Author
Copyright © 2013 by Sarah Bruni
Illustrations bySarah Ferone
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write toPermissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South,New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Bruni, Sarah.The Night Gwen Stacy Died / Sarah Bruni.pages cm“A Mariner Original.”ISBN978-0-547-89816-21. Young women—Psychology—Fiction. 2. Self-realization in women—Fiction. 3. Iowa—Fiction. I.Title.PS3602.R848N54 2013813'.6—dc23 2012040352
Spider-Man, Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, and all other comic book characters named inthis novel were published by Marvel Comics. This novel has not been authorized orsponsored by Marvel.
For my parents
and for my brothers
SEASONAL CHANGE WASdescending in its temperamental, plague-like way in fits and spurts on the middleof the country. There was a false sense to the air, all the wrong smells. That spring,Sheila bought herself a single-speed bicycle from the outdoor auction along Interstate80. She rode it down the Coralville strip to work. She pedaled fast, as if to keepup with traffic—an exercise in futility—and swallowed the air in gulps. When she reachedthe Sinclair station, Sheila felt faintly dazed, like someone about to pass out. Sometimesshe saw black spots where the white line of road was supposed to be. “You all right?Miss?” Motorists would lean their heads out windows when Sheila stopped on the shoulderof the highway to catch her breath. Or sometimes: “Lady, get out of the road!” Thiswas Iowa; no one rode bikes along the highway. Bicycling was a nice hobby for childrenbut not a reliable mode of transportation. For Sheila, this was the most exhilaratingpart of the day. This was the only exhilarating part of the day.
It was the spring of the year that coyote sightings started garnering national attention.The headlines sounded like a string of bad jokes:COYOTE WALKS INTO A BAR. COYOTE CAUGHT SLEEPING IN MATTRESS SHOP. PACK OF COYOTESCAUSES DELAYS AT O’HARE. The scientific community insisted there was nothing to worry about, that the specieswas extremely adaptable, that they mostly traveled at night, that they rarely atedomestic animals without provocation. Yet, people couldn’t help but notice how stealthilythe coyotes seemed to be infiltrating the small towns and cities. Morning joggerscomplained of coyotes crouched behind trees along public parks. The presence of theanimals often wasn’t witnessed firsthand by more than a few early risers. But hearingof such sightings was enough—also knowing they were out there at night, outsmartingthe rats, sleeping in the alleys.
It felt as if entire ecosystems had become confused. That fall, two whales had draggedtheir giant bellies onto dry land. The whales seemed determined to beach themselvesdespite rescuers’ efforts to return them to the water. Strange symbiotic relationshipswere popping up everywhere, often involving the abandoned offspring of one speciesadopting an unlikely surrogate parent. A lion cub might choose a lizard as its motherand receive a five-minute slot on the evening news, curbing coverage of the latestpolitical corruption scandal or plane crash.
There were other things too. Even in the Midwest, anyone could tell that the wholeplanet was out of whack. It had been too warm for snow until well after New Year’s.The salt-truck drivers were mad as hell. Shovel sales were way down. It was monthslater that all that hovering precipitation finally found its way to street level.March came in like a lion, went out like a lamb being devoured by a coyote. Whichis to say that it warmed up, but in a sneaky, violent way that made everyone slowto pull out their lighter clothes, so as not to look gullible at a time when everythingfelt like a fluke.
You could feel all this in the air, riding to work each day. Sheila was a gas stationattendant, and she was a model employee. Four days a week she biked along the strip,straight from school to the station. She never missed a shift. She never called insick. She was saving up. She had a year’s worth of deposits in the bank—all from workingat the Sinclair station—and when that growing fund hit a certain number, she was leavingthe country for an undetermined length of time. She was buying a plane ticket to Paris,and anyone who had a problem with that could shove it. “France?” her father said whenSheila told him her destination. When he said it, the whole country sounded like anadolescent stunt, a dog in a plaid coat and socks. “Remind me again what’s wrong withyour own country? Are you hearing this?” he’d ask Sheila’s mother, who would shakeher head or shrug. Her sister, Andrea, and her sister’s fiancé, Donny, thought itwas a frivolous way to spend money. They were saving to open a restaurant. Andreawas watching prices for lots on the west side of town. There was a business plan.It was going to be called Donny’s Grill.
“But you do all the cooking,” Sheila had protested.
“Yeah, well, it’s a team thing. We’re a team, okay? Teamwork? Does that mean anythingto you?” asked Andrea. “Think about it. Would you eat at a place called Donny andAndrea’s Grill?”
“No,” said Sheila.
“No, you wouldn’t. And you know why? ’Cause it’s too friggin’ long. Besides,” shesaid, “we’re going to try doing all the cooking together.”
Andrea had moved out of the house two years ago, which was about how long she hadbeen engaged. She started wearing acrylic fingernails so that the hand with her ringdidn’t look so otherwise lonely and unadorned. She favored shades of salmon. As agirl Andrea had been overweight and eager to fall in love. Sheila wanted, of course,to fall in love, but not with someone like Donny. Not with someone from Iowa.
Sleeping in her parents’ house, Sheila would sometimes wake to the wheels of jeepsscreeching around the corner. As they turned near the street, several boys would shout,“Iowa Hawkeye football!” Then, they would make animal noises. The real animals thatlived nearby were quiet, frantic things that made no sounds. Squirrels that scatteredand little sparrows that hopped between the cracks in the sidewalk, scouting out crumbswith an awkward deference. Most of the animals that had been indigenous to the landbefore the college moved in had been preserved in the Iowa Museum of Natural Historyon the third floor of Macbride Hall. There, they were stuffed and arranged beforepaintings of their natural habitats, interacting with predators, feeding their young.Several prairie dog pups curled up close beside their sleeping mother; rabbits andground birds were positioned as if scurrying at the feet of an elk. A single coyotein a large case did nothing but stare straight ahead, sitting off to the side of theother animals, as if it were too proud to act alive. The plaque outside its case said,“Mountain coyote. Genus and species:Canis latrans lestes. Indigenous to Nevada and California, the species can be found from the Rocky Mountainswestward, as far north as British Columbia and as far south as Arizona and New Mexico.”
The coyote, the sign explained, takes its name from the Spanish wordcoyote—coyotefromcoyote!This redundancy struck Sheila as hilarious—but the scientific name was derived fromthe Latin: barking dog. Coyotes were wilder, noisier cousins of dogs: kept later hours,spanned greater territories. Their hunting was marked by extraordinarily relentlesspatience. Coyotes were stubborn, though also oddly adaptable. Their communication,described as howls and yips, was most often heard in the spring, but also in the fall,the time of year when young pups leave their families to establish new territories. “You idiot, you could have gone anywhere,” she wanted to say to the coyote in thecase, “and you came to Iowa?” But the coyote still seemed young; clearly, it eitherwas the progeny of transients, or it migrated straight to Iowa only to be promptlyshot and stuffed.
The coyote that Sheila visited always regarded her with a look that seemed to say,Well, it’s just you and me here, isn’t it? We might as well say everything. Sheilaliked how isolated the coyote seemed to be in the middle of its glass case, staringstraight forward as if about to address her, mixed-up in a survival narrative thathad nothing to do with other coyotes, a transplant from some other territory. At leastonce a week Sheila rode her bike to Macbride Hall, pressed her nose to the smoothglass of the display case, and spilled her heart out.
Sometimes she would ask the coyote questions that she never had the guts to ask anyonealive. The coyote regarded Sheila stiff lipped from inside its case. The last timeshe had visited, Sheila had pushed her forehead flat against the glass and asked,“How am I ever going to get out of here?”
The coyote knew things. You could just tell. Sheila wasn’t stupid enough to expecta straight answer to a question posed like this, but she knew how to interpret signs.This was how things were in the middle of the country. People believed in waitingfor signs. People believed that things happened for a reason, and Sheila was not abovethis logic. She fixed her eyes on the still glass eyes of the coyote. The coyote waspast the point of escape, but in its eyes was something fleeting that belied a formerfamiliarity with the concept.
When you work in a gas station, people love to assume there’s something wrong withyou. That you’re not driven, or you’re lazy, or you didn’t have the grades in highschool, or you’re not all there. It makes them feel better about their own lives.This was just a theory that Sheila was harboring. But it was a theory based on researchand observation. Behind the counter, she performed sociological experiments. Sometimes,still red faced from her ride in, she’d sit behind the counter, out of breath, andstare into space, sneak an occasional cigarette, or put quarters into the M&M’s dispenserand listen to the stale candy turning around in her mouth like gravel under a wheel.When customers would enter the station and find her gnawing on hard candy by the handful,Sheila would receive cold, disapproving looks, especially from women, many of whomwere not that much older than Sheila. “Really?” their looks said, “Isn’t there somethingsort of pathetic about this?”
Other times, Sheila would place her French vocabulary workbook on the counter. Shewouldn’t even open it, just let it sit there between herself and whomever she washelping. The effect was remarkable. “What a great job for a student!” the same womenwould shout. “You must get all your homework done here.” As she counted their change,Sheila would smile in a demure, hard-working way and let them go ahead and think whateverthey liked. She was a student; she was a gas station attendant. Student. Gas stationattendant. A young woman with promise. A burnout at seventeen. She had observed womenaround here long enough to see the way they sized one another up like that, alwaysa series of calculations to determine who would amount to something, who would amountto nothing. So she liked to move the French book around and screw up their calculations.She thought the whole town could go to hell.
Sheila was a decent student, actually. Not great—probably good enough to get herselfin to some college, but not enough to get scholarship money. Her father had told herthat he could help her out a little, but if she wanted to do college, she was goingto need to take out loans. The thing was, Sheila felt like she had a pretty good ideaof what college entailed; she had grown up in a town that bordered one of the moremodestly sized Big Ten universities in the Midwest. The boys wore white hats, backward,and called each otherfagas a term of endearment. The girls carried handbags to class in lieu of backpacksand did not seem to own winter coats. On weekends during snowy weather, girls couldbe seen in tight black pants and multicolored leotard-like tops, floundering betweenbars in hordes to keep warm while buying gyros, safety in numbers against frostbite.By the time she was about eleven, Sheila felt she had already been to college, andshe really hadn’t thought much of the experience. Instead, she was saving all hermoney, and she was going somewhere she hadn’t lived her entire life.
Most of the teachers in her high school—themselves the products of a liberal artseducation—endlessly praised the benefits of applying to college straightaway, buther French teacher was the exception to this rule. “Yes, let’s all rush off to schooland waste thousands of dollars before we even know what we care to study or do withour lives!” Ms. Lawrence mocked the conventional wisdom that the guidance counselorswere doling out. When speaking in English, Ms. Lawrence had a habit of using the firstperson plural like this and engaging in arguments with herself. She wore complicatedpatterned scarves in her hair and had immaculate posture. She had been sighted kissinga man—through the window of a car in the school parking lot—who looked about ten yearsher junior and whom she referred to as her “boyfriend.” She would come to class onMondays and say things like, “Did anyone make it to the opening ofMother Couragethis weekend at Hancher? My boyfriend and I went on Friday, and it was really exceptional—well,if you’re in the mood for Brecht.” Ms. Lawrence had come to Iowa from Delaware, aplace far away enough that it might as well have been France. A humble state, modestin size, that Sheila imagined to be full of lanky women with hairstyles and handwritingas deliberate and meaningful as Ms. Lawrence’s.
Très bien!Ms. Lawrence would write in the margins of Sheila’s homework.Fantastique. And staring into the neat, narrow letters that Ms. Lawrence’s pen had produced,Sheila felt a temporary relief pass over her like finally here was someone with whomshe could communicate.
At the station, Sheila had a few consistent patrons. Ned, a Vietnam vet, came in dailyto purchase a pack of Pall Malls with change that he accumulated from bottle returns.Five cents for empties in Iowa. He’d stuff his hands deep into the pockets of hisjeans and pull out fistfuls of change—he started with the pennies and stacked themup in tidy piles of ten on the counter. Sometimes Sheila would tire of counting andsay, “Ned, they’re on the house today,” but Ned didn’t want her charity.
There was a guy who bought gas sometimes, or sometimes a pack of Camel straights.The first time Sheila checked his ID—state law for anyone who appeared under twenty-seven,although he hardly did—she barely registered that his name was Peter Parker, but shewondered about it later. Peter Parker didn’t talk much. The first couple of timesshe offered him the wrong pack of cigarettes he looked away and said, “Straights,no filter.” So she thought he was a bit stuck-up. Once she started getting it right,she’d have the pack waiting on the counter for him before he asked for it; sometimesshe’d give him the cigarettes for free. She could tell Peter appreciated her generosity,but he never let on. He wouldn’t even say thank you, just sort of tip his head.
The gas station was on the same highway as the exit for one of the biggest malls inIowa. Cars would pull off Interstate 80, cars from all over the state. There werevans and minivans and pickup trucks. They were filled with people, kids with facespressed against the windows in the back seats. The men all came into the station andbought a pack of gum or a soda and asked her how much farther to the mall, just straightahead, was it? Was it true that the mall had a carousel inside? A movie theater? Anice-skating rink?
They would pile their families into the truck and start driving blindly. When theyreached the gas station they knew they were on the right track, but the kids had becomerestless, they needed gum to quiet their running mouths. Their mothers needed a freshpack of Ultra Light 100s, their fathers needed confirmation that they were almostthere.
“I hear this mall’s got twenty restaurants inside,” they’d say.
“At least,” said Sheila. “There’s a whole food court.”
“Just straight ahead, then?”
Peter Parker stood in line once behind one of these families, smirking. When he reachedher register he put on a voice. He made his eyes all big and pushed his dark hairoff his brow. He said, “I hear this here mall’s got a full casino on a riverboat floatingin the basement, and the parking lot is paved with gold.” He leaned into her acrossthe counter, and Sheila felt her stomach rise in her chest as the distance closedbetween them.
“Absolutely right,” she said. It was the first time they had spoken more than thefew words necessary to exchange money for cigarettes or gasoline.
“So what time do you get off?” Peter said. “Sit at the blackjack table with me andwe’ll throw some cards around. What do you say? We’ll make a killing.”
“I get off at eight,” Sheila heard herself say.
In her mind, the slot machines glittered. Coins spilled from them to the floor. Peoplethrew up their hands. People raised their glasses. When she closed up the stationand started to ride her bike home, she was a little hurt that he never showed, thoughobviously he had no intention of doing so from the start. She had to reason with herselfon the ride home—that casinos were desperate and lonely places, that she wasn’t evenold enough to gamble, and that anyway, the place didn’t exist!—to stop conjuring animage of Peter playing slots alone, to stop thinking of the fact that he hadn’t comeback for her.
But after this day he rarely missed one of her shifts. Peter made it a point to sitwith her for a few minutes in the station, long enough for a cigarette and a conversation.After he’d been coming in for a while, Sheila asked Donny if he knew of any PeterParkers. “Sure I do,” Donny said. “Spider-Man.” No, not Spider-Man, Sheila had explainedpatiently. Just some guy. “Some guy who thinks he’s fucking Spider-Man,” Donny said.But Peter Parker was just a guy who drove a cab at night and who would stay for fiveor ten minutes when he came into the gas station if he was between fares. Sheila wassupposed to discourage patrons from loitering like this—there were some shady characterswho drove up and down the Coralville strip after nine—but she liked Peter Parker.He had nice hair, dark, overgrown, with strange waves that fell into his eyes if heleaned in to look at something closely, like if he was spilling the contents of hispockets on the counter, searching for a five. There was always dirt under his fingernailswhen he rested his hands on the counter, and his hands were broad and calloused, likemaybe they served him in a particular way that had nothing to do with gesticulationor the exchange of money. Donny was probably wrong about Peter Parker. It was a commonenough name. Anyone could have it. But it gave Sheila a welcome diversion to rerouteher brain in the direction of secret identities and second lives. It seemed a fineway to pass the time to imagine that the dirt under his fingernails was residue fromsaving the world.
“I’m home!” Sheila called through the house after slamming the door behind her. Shewalked into the kitchen, and her mother appeared, standing over the sink with a spongein her hand, Sheila’s father beside her with a towel. After thirty years of marriage,they still washed the dishes together every night. They took turns being the one towash, the one to dry.
“Hi honey,” her mother said. “We’re just cleaning up from dinner.”
Sometimes they waited for her to eat on the evenings she worked in the station, butif she got off too late, they’d save a plate of whatever dinner had been for her toheat up in the microwave.
Her parents hadn’t wanted her to take the job at the Sinclair station. Her motherthought it was a job for a man—the tire grease, the cigarettes. Her father thoughtgas stations on the strip weren’t safe at night.
“Some crazy idiot could come in and rob the place,” her father had said. “And thenwhat are you going to do, a girl alone in a gas station?”
“I’d give them the money,” she had said. “And I’d call the cops. Same as you would.”
“You just better hope that’s all you’d have to give,” her father said, “in a situationlike that.”
“Like what else?” Sheila had asked, but her father said nothing. Was the implicationthat she would be sexually accosted or attacked? Was this why it was irresponsiblefor a teenage girl to take an evening job at a gas station? Because the possibilityexisted that certain men couldn’t resist whipping out their genitals and making demandsof other people? One always needed to suspect! One needed to be steadfast, vigilant!Especially girls like Sheila who were charged withapplyingthemselves. For example: the option of college was made available to girls like Sheilaby generations of struggle, and now she wasn’t even going toapply?She was going to work in a crappy gas station to save money for some ambiguous plan?
“Good thing I’m almost eighteen,” Sheila had insisted. “Old enough to make some ofmy own decisions, I’d guess.”
But of course she was living at home. Her father was always quick to bring up thatfact. She was living in his house. None of it mattered anyway, Sheila had liked totell everyone, because by the end of the year she’d be fluent in a completely foreignlanguage, and living in another country as well.
“This country’s not good enough for you?” her father had asked recently. He had caughther making French vowel sounds in the hallway while carrying a basket of laundry upto her room.
“That’s right,” said Sheila. “Too many rules.”
“Because the French don’t have any rules,” her father said.
Sheila shrugged her shoulders. “Je ne sais pas.”
She didn’t know, not really. That was why it was so difficult to have an argumentabout her plans. When posed the question of what exactly she would be doing in France,Sheila was hard-pressed to generate a response that sounded acceptable to most ofher adversaries. The truth was that her goals were somewhat modest. She imagined shewould have a job in a shop or behind a counter somewhere. She imagined she would renta room with a window that opened onto a street with traffic. Maybe there would befriends, some sort of community, but mostly she saw herself negotiating the city streetswith a bicycle, its basket filled with the vegetables whose names she knew how topronounce. The point was only that this place existed, and she could get to it. Thepoint was only that for a time she would be there, andtherewas not here.
Her father had studied her hard around the eyes. He said, “You can’t start a lifein a language you don’t understand, Sheila.” Sheila had been ready to say more, todefend the fact that she already understood loads of conjugations and vocabulary,but her father hadn’t taken his eyes off hers. He held her stare until she lookeddown at her fingernails. Historically, in the family hierarchy, her father was theparent with whom Sheila could have a reasonable dialogue, a good argument. When thingsbecame heated, her mother got a breathless look and went to fold laundry in the otherroom. But lately, her father was the quiet one, as if defeated by the thought of competingwith a foreign country for his daughter’s affection. It was Sheila’s mother thesedays who would say things like, “Honey, we just don’t understand why you feel youneed to do this.” As if Sheila had announced that she was going off to war, as ifshe were proposing to irrevocably disown them all.
“I mean, how will that work, exactly?” her mom had asked. “Are you going to come homefor Christmas, or are you just going to start celebrating holidays with a bunch offoreigners instead of with your family?”
Now Sheila opened the fridge and found a plate of some kind of meat and mashed potatoes.Her parents finished washing the dishes and hovered around her briefly, like insects,like hummingbirds.
“How was your day?” her mother asked.
“Fine,” Sheila said. She peeled back the plastic wrap and set the microwave for twominutes.
“Learn anything at school?” her father asked like some dad on television.
Sheila thought for a second. She thought, a scalene triangle has no equal sides, noequal angles. She thought, je veuille, tu veuilles, elle veuille. Also, somethingabout the Ancient Mariner and his albatross necklace.
“Not really,” she said.
Her father nodded and folded his towel on the counter. Her mother kissed her forehead.
“Turn off all the lights before you come up, sweetie,” her mom said.
Sheila sat at the kitchen table with her plate. There was a time when her parentswould sit with her and keep her company while she finished eating, but that time seemedto have passed. There was a time when there were things to say to these people—herparents—things to explain, to ask, to offer, and it made her bottom lip tremble inthe start of what could be, but was not, a sob, to watch her father fold his toweland take the stairs slowly up to his bedroom, the weight of his hand on the banister,because maybe it was her fault that in seventeen years she had already exhausted thepossibilities for communicating with the people who had produced her.
Sheila sat under the cool light over the kitchen table, raking her fork through hermashed potatoes, flattening and raking, flattening, then raking, conjuring a whitefield on her plate, an alien terrain that required her attention, a plot of land thatrequired nothing so much as her specific and ardent and immediate care.
IN THE MIDDLEof the night, it was always the same. The dreams told the dreamer, pay attention.The dreams told the dreamer, considerthisand considerthat, and for the most part, it was fine to consider these things, to engage the subconsciousin the exercise of willful consideration.
Always the dreams told the dreamer, Let’s pretend the world is this way for a fewminutes, I mean, no big deal, no commitment, just something to do until you wake up.
Come on, say the dreams, it’ll be fun.
Imagine: A stairway. A city map. A girl in her underwear. A lion lives in your basement.A migratory bird explains microclimates in the Pacific Northwest. A train runs onthe output of your mental energies.
Hypothetically speaking, none of these dreams would present a problem. The dreameractually thought of these dreams as enjoyable. But there were other dreams, too. Theother kind started the same way, with a directive—pay attention. But this time itwasn’t a suggestion; it was more like a demand. It was more like a threat. These dreamsfelt more like lived events that would happen somewhere to someone if the dreamerdidn’t intercept them in time.
Here’s one: You are driving to Chicago. Why Chicago? It’s difficult to say, but everyfifteen to twenty miles the signs on the road are counting down to that city, so inthe logic of dreams, this word,Chicago, becomes synonymous withdestination. A beautiful girl sits beside you in the car. A gun rests in the glove compartment.The gun is small and cold; you know this because before it was in the glove compartment,it was in your hand, pointed toward the girl. The girl you know from somewhere, she’sbeen in your dreams before, but you can’t place her, you can’t name her in the sameway you can name this place where you’re going.
There is a sense of urgency. The windows are open and the breeze picks up your hairand slaps at your cheeks and chin. The mile markers count down: fifty miles, thenfifteen, then the unknown skyscrapers are a visible glow ahead in the distance. Youhear a radio playing softly somewhere. You see a parking lot, a pigeon flap one winghelplessly, crushed metal floating in stacks down the surface of a narrow river. Anentire scrap yard of flattened cars, half of them inching downstream, the sun catchingthe light off a resilient fender. The other half stacked on top of one another inan empty lot, their true colors muted by all the dust that has settled. The dust isthe residue from nearby explosions. Sometimes there are explosions, the dream advises.You try to pay attention.
Then there is the cramped apartment you don’t recognize. What happens next is thething you can’t shake. You see a man walk into the room. His eyes are clear and slightlyfamiliar. The rest you see in fragments, flashes that blur and fade around the corners.You see him walk into the bathroom with a clenched fist, open his fist above his mouth,and invite the small trail of white pills into his body. They stick in the man’s throat,and you see him start to cough, to choke. You see the man start to moan, and everythingthat follows. By now it is impossible to stop watching, to turn it off.
He reminds you of someone you know. In the terror logic of the dream, the vision,the threat, the premonition, you understand that you are the only one who can savehim from himself.
AS SHEILA DISMOUNTEDin the school parking lot, she always inhaled as much of the outside air as she couldbefore heeding the last warning bell, locking up her bike, and submitting herselfto the eight-period day. She caught her breath with her hands resting on her kneeswhile she watched the rest of the student body—her peers—disengage from cars, embraces,conversations, and wander, group by group, into the building. It was senior year.Everyone had already become whatever they were going to be to one another for therest of their time together. Alliances had been formed, rivalries established, andnow the name of the game was hang on like hell to what you had worked to get, andhope for the best. Reinvention was futile; deliverance was not up for discussion.
She walked into first-period English and took her seat.
“Okay, people,” Mrs. Gavin was saying, “announcements. Listen up.”
Good morning, said the voice over the PA. Can I have your attention please? Annualblood drive starts tomorrow. As always, type O, we’re depending on you! The votesare in and the theme for Spring Fling, as decided by popular demand, will be GirlsJust Wanna Have Fun! The voice over the PA reminded the students that it was SpiritWeek and said they should feel comfortable expressing their school spirit by creativelyincorporating the colors of the Cougar—blue and orange—into their manner of dress.The students were reminded that hats, bandannas, head-coverings of any kind were notpermitted. T-shirts with offensive language or T-shirts bearing explicit product insignia,also unacceptable. The students were encouraged, as always, to use good taste whenselecting socially appropriate ways to show their school enthusiasm during SpiritWeek. There would be a pep rally the following Friday in anticipation of Spring Fling,which was something everyone could look forward to, but, of course, the antics thatensued during the last school-wide pep rally would not be repeated.
The announcements droned on. Sheila made a pillow of her crossed arms on her deskand placed her head there. No matter what was said over the PA on a given morning,Sheila could rest assured that it did not apply to her. She had been fairly successfulup until this point of her high school career existing just on the periphery of whateverwas going on.
She knew how to give a straight answer to a question. She knew how to make eye contact.She had decent grades, mostly Bs. She had two physical assets: wide eyes, long legs.This physical evaluation was not Sheila’s own. These were only the facts; these werethe parts of her body that boys’ eyes rested on when they glanced in her direction.Otherwise, everything about her was expected. She was on the skinny side, and tallish—butnot so tall that her height summoned attention—with long, light brown hair. Lightbrown, dirty blond—the same hair everyone had.
She had one ally in the cafeteria: Anthony Pignatelli. Anthony was the only real friendshe had hung on to since the start of high school. She knew some people assumed theywere a couple, and as far as Sheila was concerned, people could say whatever theywanted about her and Anthony Pignatelli. He was a normal kid, and he made her laugh.Which was more than you could say about most people.
To the untrained eye, the cafeteria might appear to be simply a place for studentsto eat, but in fact, it was composed of two disparate social spheres, universallyreferred to by their relative size: Small Caf and Large Caf. Small Caf was crowded—skinnygirls shared metal folding chairs at the most populated tables—because it was preferableto squeeze together than to surrender one of their own to Large Caf. Large Caf, bycontrast, was underpopulated. Empty chairs abounded. Much in the way that a desertedcity with formerly big ambitions might feature large parks and grand, sweeping avenuesbut a few too many boarded-up windows as a result of its waning population, the spacein Large Caf made it quite easy to detect who was eating alone; who had shimmied afolding chair up to the end of a table to seem a part of it but was, in fact, not;who clearly must be recognized—even by the residents of that respective Large Caftable—as extraneous.
Freshman year, before Sheila had understood all of this, she’d sat at a Small Caftable while half its residents were still in the lunch line—a table of girls. Thegirls did not make any attempt to remove her, but when the table had reached capacityand Jessica Reynolds had to pull up a folding chair from another table, someone finallyleaned in and made contact. “Who are you?” the girl asked.
“Sheila,” Sheila said.
“Sheila,” the girl repeated slowly amid laughter, nodding as if homing in on someshared truth.
Sheila took a bite of her sandwich. This had been back before she completely gaveup on the entire student body. This had been back when she still cared about thingslike what other people thought.
“To Sheila,” someone raised a Pepsi in the air, and the table drank to her.
Sheila forced a smile.
Then someone else raised her drink, and it happened again. It happened six times duringthe lunch period. Sheila finished her sandwich and never stepped into Small Caf again.
She was wary of groups. There was an impenetrable exchange of glances, an unspokenetiquette to which she had never felt privy, and tables in Small Caf obviously operatedby these same unknowable rules. Sheila had always preferred the company of intenseand loyal outsiders. If there were only two people in a given conversation, therewas not as much room for error, margin for misinterpretation. As a child, her onlyfriend had been a reclusive raven-haired girl in the neighborhood named Amelia. Amelia’sfather was perpetually away on business, and her mother had a habit of sleeping untilnoon and spending the day pacing around the kitchen in lacy pajama shirts, refillingher glass from an endless supply of a blended drink. Amelia’s family was from Miami,and the way that Sheila’s own mother pronounced the wordMiami, Sheila had the impression it was an untrustworthy landscape: polluted and dangerous.She had always thought Amelia’s mother very glamorous, but Amelia did not agree. Ameliawas not allowed to come out of the house and play until her mother woke up, so Sheilawould often spend the long late morning hours camped outside of Amelia’s bedroom windowwith a folding chair and a notebook, and together, through the screen, the girls wouldwrite plays with titles likeAmelia and Sheila Save the DayandAmelia and Sheila Save the Day Again. On summer nights, they gave performances on the concrete patio of Amelia’s yardand all the adults would line up folding lawn chairs in the grass: clapping awkwardly,making stiff chitchat during intermission. When Amelia was eleven, her family movedback to Miami. “Well, that’s the way it goes, honey,” Sheila’s father had said. “That’slife.” This had seemed an unnecessarily heartless assessment of the situation, butit was true. She and Amelia wrote letters for the first few months, but before long,they fell out of the habit.
It was only after a week of eating lunch in front of her locker freshman year, dodginghall monitors, that Sheila attempted to stake out a more modest seat in the cafeteria.She had sat down at the other end of a safe-looking, half-populated Large Caf tableand busied herself taking her sandwich and drink out of her paper bag, looking asextraordinarily preoccupied with it all as possible, when she heard the boy at theother end of the table say, “It’s Sheila Gower, right?”
Sheila looked up from her sandwich slowly. It was always a shock to hear people youdidn’t know say your name. It made you wonder what else they knew.
“Yes,” Sheila admitted.
“You’re in my English class,” the boy said.
He looked familiar. For a moment the wordspigandtoenailinexplicably flashed into her brain; she heard the words in tandem as a half-chant,a whisper. “Second period, Mr. Clemmont?” she asked.
“That’s the one,” said the boy. “I’m Anthony.”
Pig Toenail.Tony Pig Toenail. That’s how some of the other boys in her English class referred to him. But thename sounded different the way he said it.
Anthony seemed to see that this is what she was thinking because he said, “The ‘G’is silent.”
“Okay,” Sheila said. “Is that like Spanish?”
“Italian,” he said. “The ‘G’ is fucking silent anytime it comes before an ‘N.’”
“Sure,” Sheila said. “Cool.” She nodded, but in her brain a neat row of pink toespersisted, nails pointed uniformly, dangerously in one direction. She stabbed herstraw into the mouth of her juice box and gulped furiously.
“Wait,” said Anthony, “Didn’t you used to sit in the Small Caf?”
“Briefly,” said Sheila. “But it turns out I don’t have an eating disorder, so it’snot really my crowd.”
Anthony smiled. “You like the stuff we’re reading in English?”
There had been a lot about disembodied hearts all that year. The hideous telltalevariety, noisily thumping through the floorboards of a murderer’s home. Then, therewas the way some poet’s heart was stolen during the cremation of his drowned body,and how his wife wrapped the damaged organ in a poem, like a piece of meat in butcherpaper, and placed it in a drawer of her desk for thirty years. The point of everythingthey read—even freshman year—seemed to be about how life was short and everyone shouldjust sleep together before they all died.
“You mean all that gather-ye-rosebuds crap?” Sheila asked.
It wasn’t crap, not really. It was fascinating to conjure one’s death and imaginelife to be so brief a glint of a thing that all it made sense to do was grab holdof the closest breathing body and not let go. “I think Mr. Clemmont is maybe a littletoo invested in this unit,” Sheila said finally.
Anthony was laughing. “Definitely,” he said. “The guy is like obsessed with sex. IfI have to ‘unpack’ one more metaphor about virgins and coy mistresses this semesterI’m going to vomit.”
“Second period is way too early for unpacking virgins,” Sheila agreed.
This is how their friendship began. One of them would make observations about stupidpeople or stupid metaphors, and the other would laugh. For a while it seemed likeshe and Anthony weren’t simply clinging to one another out of desperation, but actuallyhad something in common. It wasn’t until her senior year when she was enrolled inMrs. Gavin’s English class that Sheila considered the possibility that Mr. Clemmonthad not been sex-obsessed at all. All of English literature was obsessed with sex.When she shared this observation with Anthony at lunch, Anthony seemed to agree wholeheartedlywith this as well. After a while, it seemed there was little she could say that wasdisagreeable to him.
Today, Anthony was already sitting at their table, halfway through his sandwich, bythe time Sheila got through the line and sat down.
“Didn’t bring your lunch today?” he asked.
Sheila shook her head. “I didn’t have time to pack one. I was at the station untillate.”
“That’s so cool that you have this whole other life.”
“Not really,” Sheila said. “It’s a gas station.”
“Still,” Anthony said. “Maybe some night I’ll borrow a car and come and visit you.We could steal a pack of cigarettes and smoke them and make fun of all the peoplewho come in.”
“That’s against the law,” Sheila said. She could feel all the hairs standing up atthe back of her neck. Her reaction surprised her. The thought of Anthony walking intothe station made her uneasy. “I mean, you don’t even smoke,” she said.
“Yeah, but you do.”
“Not really,” Sheila said. “Only every once in a while to pass the time.”
“Whatever,” said Anthony. He took a bite from his apple. “Are you going to this peprally thing next Friday?”
“No,” said Sheila. “Are you?”
“I don’t know,” Anthony said. “Maybe. You’re not even a little curious who’ll getnominated?”
“Jesus, Sheila,” Anthony chided her. “Spring Fling? They’re nominating the court atthe pep rally. They’ve only been talking about it over the PA for the last three weeks.”
Sheila looked up at Anthony from her side of the table as if from the other side ofthe room, past the lunch line and panes of glass. He was wearing his favorite bluejeans and a faded T-shirt with a vintage ad for Orange Crush soda. It wasn’t immediatelyobvious that these were the school colors, but there was no denying that that’s whatthey were. It made her feel a little sad for him, and for an instant she wanted tograb ahold of Anthony’s hand and save him from some obscure threat. She had been kissedby two boys in her entire life—once by a college boy she met swimming at the reservoir,once by a boy in the fluorescent-lit parking lot of a movie theater the summer aftereighth grade—and both times the transition from talking to having his tongue in hermouth had felt non-existent in a way that made her wonder what had been going on inthe boys’ brains up until that moment. Was there something specific she had said,some obscure invitation, that made them think touching their tongues to hers was theobvious course of action? The thought occurred to her that this was happening allover the country. There were kids in every cafeteria draping themselves in the representativecolors of cougars and falcons and mythological animals, pushing their tongues intoone another’s mouths, chanting things, casting votes for the kings and queens whowould represent them.But so what?Sheila had to remind herself. This was high school. It was a regular thing. It wasno cause for alarm. It was nothing to be depressed about.
Pickup trucks were always pulling into the station. They had bumper stickers at eyelevel that said things likeAMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE, not evenLEAVE IT, which at least would have been a parallel construction. Sheila knew all about parallelconstruction. She knew all about past participles and all about subjunctive tensesbecause she was teaching herself a whole new goddamn language. Her father’s critiqueseemed to place her knowledge of French around that of a traveler with a well-readphrase book, but by her own assessment she had to give herself more credit. She hadstudied vocabulary for a wide range of social situations and predicaments, chapterswith titles like “At the Library,” “A Doctor’s Visit,” and “Accepting and DecliningInvitations.” She knew how to borrow rare books, blow off important social engagements,and describe obscure sources of pain in her body—vocabulary clearly way beyond thegrasp of the prudent traveler. Behind the counter she had her English to French dictionaryand a CD and workbook set. Sheila could play whatever she wanted over the speakersat the Sinclair station, so sometimes she played the workbook CD, and she’d join inconversations between ringing people up. Today she and the French CD woman had metat a museum.
“Ça va?” said the French woman on the CD.
“Ça va,” said Sheila.
“Tu as de la chance d’être à Paris pour cette exposition.”
“Pump four, sixteen dollars,” said Sheila.
Ned never mistook her for one of the college girls, but if her French CDs were playingin the station when Sheila paused in her lesson to count out his payment, he’d solemnlyrepeat the foreign phrases along with the woman on the CD, as if he were taking theresponsibility for saying the things that needed saying.
Truckers who walked into the station to buy a box of condoms or a bag of Doritos wouldstare at Sheila’s lesson speechlessly for the eternity it took for their tanks tofill with diesel before saying something like, “You ever heard the French inventedthe threesome?” Sometimes they winked. With this particular kind of customer, Sheilaplayed ignorant to her native language completely.
“Je suis désolée! Je ne comprends pas!”
Peter Parker usually let the lessons go without comment, but today he entered thestation especially riled by something.
“What’s that you just said?” Peter asked.
“Oh nothing,” said Sheila. “There was a demonstration in the street, and one of theorganizers was trying to give me a leaflet to read.”
Peter snickered. “Did you take it?”
“Oh no, I refused to take it because I was practicing being furious over how thisstudent demonstration has created a huge traffic jam in the street,” said Sheila.“But the next time I practice this dialogue I will take the leaflet and practice beingsympathetic to his cause.”
“Lots of opportunities to speak French with student organizers around here?”
“For your information,” Sheila said, “I’m getting the hell out of this town.”
“Let me guess,” said Peter. He raised his finger in the air as if it were an antennapicking up signals from Sheila’s brain. “You’re moving to Paris.” He continued tohold his finger in the air and the smile persisted—knowing, accusing.
Sheila started to ring up Peter’s pack of cigarettes. She said, “You owe me $6.25.”
Peter made no attempt to reach for his wallet. He closed the distance between Sheilaand himself and leaned in across the counter. “Tell me if I guessed wrong,” he said.
Sheila placed a hand on her hip. “You’re right,” Sheila said. “I’m glad that amusesyou. Now take your cigarettes and get out of my station.”
“I’m not the least bit amused,” said Peter. He didn’t take his eyes off her. “I justdon’t quite understand what you’re waiting for. If you want to leave, leave.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” said Sheila.
“Says who?” said Peter.
“I’m saving money.”
“How much money is in the register when you close out the books?” asked Peter.
“It doesn’t work that way,” Sheila repeated. “That’s not how the world works.”
“If you say so, sweetheart,” said Peter, and he threw seven dollars on the counterand left before she could make change.
Sheila sat behind the counter of the station and continued to watch the doorway hehad walked through. Peter was wrong. Still, she felt a kind of electricity coursingthrough her, some kind of foreign energy she didn’t know what to do with, and whenit was time to go her hands shook as she counted down the register and turned offthe pumps for the night.
“Bring me to the bar with you?” Sheila asked her sister.
She had ridden straight to Andrea and Donny’s from the station. Why ride home to herparents’ to eat microwaved mashed potatoes alone in an empty kitchen, when Andreaand Donny would be eating tamales and popcorn out of greasy paper-lined baskets, splittingpitchers? She and Donny were friends with most of the bartenders, so it shouldn’tbe that hard for Sheila just to walk in with them. Her sister wouldn’t deny her; Andrealiked to feel older, more experienced, showing Sheila how the adult world operated.Usually Sheila resented this attitude, but sometimes she saw how useful it could be.
“Sure,” said Andrea. “Okay.”
Sheila would turn eighteen in a few weeks, so it seemed conceivable that she couldpass for twenty-one in a college town inundated with fake IDs. She had never wantedto try it before. Donny dropped Andrea and Sheila off at the door and parked aroundthe corner. Sheila felt nervous for only a second before following her sister inside.Immediately, she was impressed with how many people were clearly trying to get awaywith the same subterfuge, unsuccessfully. There were two college girls up to the bar,fluttering their eyelashes, who asked the bartender for a vodka tonic and for a CapeCod, and when they were asked for identification the girls shrugged and giggled andsaid they had forgotten their wallets in the car. As the girls turned to leave, themen at the bar’s eyes fell to the words ironed into the asses of the girls’ sweatpants:“princess” and “volleyball.”
“I’ll take ‘princess’?” one suggested to the other. “You take ‘volleyball.’”
“Sure,” said another man, “I’d do ‘volleyball.’”
“Gentlemen.” Andrea nodded in their direction, and they greeted her as she made herway toward the bar. “Hey Carlos,” she said to the bartender, “What does a girl haveto do to get a drink around here?” Andrea ordered a drink for herself and then turnedto Sheila. She was impressed by the way her sister commanded the attention of themen in the bar. She never would have guessed her capable.
Sheila tried to think of the least likely drink an underage girl would ask for. Sheheard one of the men sitting at the bar order a Maker’s and Coke. Sheila asked forthe same. The bartender didn’t even look up. He just started making the drinks Andreaordered.
“Damn,” Donny came up behind Andrea and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, “Yoursister doesn’t mess around with her liquor!”
When the drinks arrived, Donny threw down enough to pay for all of them, and theymade their way to the far side of the room. Donny and his friends added their namesto a list on the chalkboard by the pool table, started placing bets on games. Sheilasat with her sister in the wooden booth and watched the ice bob and twirl in her drink.The first few sips felt like fire, but then the taste turned sweet, like the firewas responsible for caramelizing everything as it passed her tongue. There was thisheat expanding throughout her body; there was Pasty Cline on the jukebox correctingsome jerk who had done her wrong; even Donny didn’t seem so bad when Sheila was watchinghim calculate shots on the pool table. In the corner by the bathrooms, a couple wasdancing.
“Sheila,” Andrea said, and her name sounded far away. Sheila smiled up at her sisterand for no reason at all remembered this time when they were kids Sheila had becomelost in a Hy-Vee supermarket, and Andrea had called her name down each of the aisles.Sheila had heard her sister’s voice leading her and had followed it from the chaosof the cereal aisle all the way back to produce, where her family was waiting. Andfor a moment, she wanted to reach out and seize her sister’s hand and say,let’s get out of here, Andy, you and me, we could just go.
“So are you?” Andrea said.
Sheila’s smile faded. She swirled around the ice in her glass that signified the endof the drink. “Am I what?” she asked.
“Sleeping with anyone!” Andrea said. “Hello? Are you in this conversation or not?”
“No and not,” Sheila said. But she smiled.
“But you’ll tell me when you are, right?” Andrea said.
“I wouldn’t hold your breath or anything.”
“You should do it in high school,” Andrea said wistfully. “That’s when it’s the best,sneaking around behind lockers, and those dark storage rooms near the gym.”
“I’ll probably do it when I’m in France,” Sheila said. “By the river or something.”
“Ugh, gross,” Andrea said. “That sounds like a great way to get a disease. The riveris probably where women go to get molested.”
“The Seine? The fucking Seine, Andrea, really?”
Her sister rolled her eyes. She opened her mouth as if in rebuttal, but then shutit just as quickly.
“What?” said Sheila.
“Nothing,” said Andrea. “Forget it.”
“Say it,” said Sheila.
Andrea shrugged. “Just that the whole thing’s weird.”
“Maybe to you.”
“Not just to me. I think Mom and Dad sort of thought you would go to college nextyear.”
“You didn’t go to college,” said Sheila.
“It’s different,” said Andrea. “I have Donny. And we have a business plan.”
“So if I was having sex with someone who I was starting a business with, I wouldn’thave to go to college either.”
“Touché,” said Andrea rolling her eyes.
“French!” Sheila shouted. “Ha-ha!” She waved her finger in her sister’s face, as ifshe’d caught Andrea in the act of something, as if this usage were evidence Sheilawas winning the argument they were always perpetually having on some level. “Vivela France!” she growled in the direction the pool table. She laughed until she hiccupped,until her body shook, and when she looked up again, she saw that Andrea was regardingher with a look of slight concern from the other side of the table.
Sheila felt uneasy. The fire that had felt warm under her tongue had moved into herstomach. She wanted to feel as she had before, as the drink was still going down.Patsy Cline had given way to Peggy Lee, who was angry in a different way, demandingto know whether or notthatwas all thereis. Sheila looked at her sister, five years her senior, who obviously had figured outsome way to live in the world, and wanted to ask of her something similar. But sheheld her tongue. “I’m going up for another one,” Sheila said. She was looking throughthe money in her purse to go up and ask for the drink herself. But just as she wasgetting ready to leave the booth, she froze.
Peter Parker walked in and sat at the bar. She watched him take a roll of bills outof his pocket and lay a few of them down on the counter. He counted the money flippantly,as if it were irrelevant how many dollars were there, and how many needed to be laiddown to pay for his drink. When he looked up and met Sheila’s gaze, she looked away.
“Who is that guy?” Andrea asked.
“Oh, just this guy.”
“Well he’s looking at you like some kind of pervert.”
“Let him,” said Sheila.
She needed to stand up now, to signal to him somehow. But she felt scared of walkingstraight up to the bar. It didn’t seem right to run into him this way, with Andreaand Donny. Peter belonged to another part of her life that had nothing to do withthis one. Sheila got up to go to the bathroom.
The bathrooms were at the far end of the bar, with a sink just to the right of theback door that led to the alley. Sheila felt sure that Peter Parker would be on theother side of the door when she finished. She fantasized about slipping out the backdoor with him without even washing her hands. She imagined how his taxi would be waitingjust in the side lot and how he would gesture toward it, silently opening the passenger-sidedoor for her, how she would get in, how he would close the door, run around to thedriver’s seat, and then: they would drive. Where didn’t matter. Anywhere really. Shepressed her hands to the bathroom door in anticipation of him being there, the waythat she’d been taught in grammar school to touch her bedroom door to detect if therewas a fire in the house at night.
Sheila’s family had always slept with their doors open. If a door was closed, herfather said, something fishy was likely going on behind it.
“I demand an open door policy in this family,” he said, as if their bedrooms wereforeign countries resistant to trade.
Sheila checked her face in the bathroom’s dirty mirror and it was pretty much whatshe expected: limp brown-blond ponytail, smudged eyeliner, thin smile. She openedthe door slowly. Peter Parker was not there. She washed her hands and turned the corner,but he wasn’t even in the bar.
“Looks like your buddy took off,” Andrea said.
“Who?” said Sheila.
Andrea shook her head. “Just be careful. He’s way older and he was looking at youlike a piece of meat. I wouldn’t get into that if I were you.”
“I met a boy,” Sheila told the coyote in Macbride Hall.
The mountain coyote gazed at Sheila, eager for her to go on.
A piece of meat!Had he really looked at her that way? Sheila knew she was supposed to feel objectified,but she felt fantastic. She could feel every muscle in her leg, every tendon expandand contract, as she pedaled her bike to the museum.
“It’s stupid,” she said to the coyote. “He’s not even really my age.”
But the coyote did not seem bothered by this detail. It stared straight ahead as ifto suggest that relative age was the most insignificant factor in the world to a coyotethat had lived in a glass case for over a century.
“There’s a chance he thinks he’s a superhero,” Sheila admitted.
This too barely fazed the coyote. For all Sheila knew the mountain coyote was alsosusceptible to delusions of grandeur, what with the plaques and glass around it.
“I might say something.”
“I must be an idiot,” Sheila told the coyote, “I must be crazy,” but the coyote didn’tgive any indication that there was any reason for her to hesitate in approaching theboy.
She couldn’t sleep that night after her conversation with the coyote. She couldn’texplain the endless flicker of her thoughts or how they continued to route towardPeter: the outline of his shoulder under the sleeve of his T-shirt, the flat surfaceof his fingernails moving quickly as they counted though dollar bills, the way hehad looked at her in the bar, the way he had looked away from her. She slipped ona sweatshirt over her pajamas, tiptoed downstairs, and turned on the computer thatsat idle on her father’s desk in the corner of the room. She typed “Spider-Man” and“Peter Parker” into the empty search engine box that was waiting for her there. Shehad never bothered to see any of the blockbuster Spider-Man movies, because—well,why would she? She generally didn’t waste her time with films marketed to prepubescentboys.
“Sheila?” her father called down the stairs. “Is that you?”
“Yeah, I’m on the computer,” she paused, “looking up some stuff for school.” Was theresomething devious about researching Spider-Man in the same way that there was somethingdevious about learning French? She wasn’t sure what would create worry in the mindsof her parents anymore, what would signal that she was in some way not living a normallife or healthy life. Her own father could probably tell her as much about Spider-Manas the Internet, but she wasn’t about to ask him.
A pause, and then nothing. The creak of the stairs that signified her father had retreatedback into his bedroom.
First there was the expected stuff, the stuff everyone knew: spider bite, spider sense,great power, great responsibility, blah blah blah. Sheila scrolled down the page.Most of the stuff she read had to do with villains and superpowers, not the kind ofthing that interested Sheila. But the more she researched, the more the varied facetsof Peter Parker’s character seemed to gesture in directions that were completely contradictory.By some accounts, Parker was a hopeless recluse, a school nerd who was ridiculed byeveryone; by others, outside of his school work, he was a part-time photojournalistwho drove a motorcycle through the school parking lot and revved the engine aroundpretty girls, asked them out for sodas.
He was a chameleon, and not just because of the whole secret identity thing. The otherpeople in Peter’s life sometimes seemed baffled by his actions. Sheila clicked ona reproduction of a short spread from one of the early comic books. Peter Parker peelingaround the school parking lot on his motorcycle. A blond girl named Gwendolyn Stacygasps, clearly impressed,Actually I never thought of you as the motorcycle type before, Pete!
Peter Parker smiles in a satisfied way and looks the girl straight in the eye.
Lady, there’s a LOT you don’t know about me! But stick around—I’m planning to educateyou!
Sheila sat back. She blinked at the screen. This is not the way science nerds spoketo pretty girls. Some things were not adding up here; some things were going to requirefurther investigation.
The next time she was near the college, Sheila walked into a store that sold comicbooks.
“Can you please direct me to your Spider-Man section?” she asked the boy behind thecounter.
“Huh?” said the boy.
“Spider-Man,” said Sheila.
“Depends on the title. And the year. Back issues in the boxes, more recent on thewalls. Alphabetical order,” he said.
Sheila found a few relevant comic books in plastic sleeves along the walls. She broughtthem back up to the counter.
“Could I look through these?” she asked the boy.
“Sure,” he said, “if you buy them.”
Sheila turned the comic books over and looked at the prices written on little whitestickers on the cellophane.
“Oh, I don’t really even want to read them,” said Sheila, “I just want to find outabout Spider-Man’s life.”
A few boys flipping through issues looked up from their shopping. Shuffling quietednear the front of the store.
“Oh, personal reasons,” said Sheila. “Anyway, they’re awfully expensive.”
“They get much more expensive as you move up the wall there,” said the boy, finallymaking eye contact, or perhaps just catching her eye on his way to glancing down ather selections. “These in your hand are barely controversial issues.”
“Just give me the bottom line,” said Sheila. “What sort of person is he really?”
The clerk sneered. “He’s shy. He wears glasses. He gets bit by a spider.”
“Glasses?” asked Sheila. “No, that doesn’t sound right at all. I thought he ridesa motorcycle to school.”
She started to put her selections back on the shelf, but in the back of the storeshe cornered a customer who looked about twelve and who set everything straight. PeterParker didn’t reallyneedeyeglasses; he wore them despite 20/20 vision. The motorcycle he bought with moneyfrom working as a photographer for the local newspaper, which was just a part-timegig he worked on the side of high school. The reason why he worked side jobs was tofund his life as Spider-Man; he had to pay for his web-shooter and some of the othertools hidden away in his costume. When he wasn’t fighting villains, his life as aregular kid was pretty rough. His uncle Ben was killed by a criminal who broke intothe house one night; he lived alone with just his aunt May. His parents, don’t evenask—he doesn’t have any. His first real girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, was killed by theGreen Goblin, and Peter Parker, first crazy with regret at not being able to saveher in time, then fell in love with Mary Jane Watson. Spider-Man had never wantedto be Spider-Man. It was just something that came up; he didn’t want so much responsibility,but he did what he could with it since there was no getting out of the role once itcame. It wasn’t always easy for him to know what was the right thing to do.
The next day at lunch, Sheila decided to see if Anthony had any further information.He was a guy. He might know something.
“Did you ever see any of the Spider-Man movies?”
“First one,” Anthony said. “Kind of sucked.”
“I never saw it,” Sheila said. “Would you want to maybe watch it this weekend or something?”
“Did you hear what I just said about it kind of sucking?”
Sheila stared. “Forget it,” she said. “I’d rather watch it alone.”
Anthony laughed. “Since when are you into Spider-Man movies?”
“I don’t know,” Sheila said. “I’m not.”
Anthony nodded. “Okay.”
“What?” asked Sheila.
“Nothing,” Anthony said.
Sheila looked from the crumbs on the table and up to Anthony. She felt a pricklingat the back of her ears. “Since when are you so interested in pep rallies and thecourt of Spring Fling?”
Anthony shook his head. “It’s a dance at our school. We go to school here. It’s notlike some random thing I just decided to become obsessed with for no reason, like,I don’t know, French or Spider-Man.”
Sheila bristled. “Yeah, except you’ve never been to one of these dances in your life.I mean are you even going? I haven’t heard you talk about asking anyone.”
As soon as Sheila said it, she wished she hadn’t. Anthony was looking down at thecrumbs now on the table and he was biting down on the inside of his cheek. Don’t sayit, Sheila prayed, Please don’t say anything. But it was too late.
“I guess I was kind of thinking we could go together,” Anthony said. “I mean I knowdances are a waste of time and everything but it’s our last year.”
Sheila felt all the blood rush to her face. She placed her sandwich down slowly, diplomatically,on the table. “Let me think about it,” she said, and though she had tried to say itwith as even a tone she could manage, she could tell that she had said the wrong thing,because Anthony shoved the rest of a half-eaten apple in his backpack and walked away.
“I saw you in the bar the other night,” Sheila told Peter Parker when he came intothe station between fares.
“Yes,” said Peter, “I saw you too.”
“Do you usually go there?”
“I don’t go out that much.”
“Do you think I’m pretty?” asked Sheila.
“How should I know,” he said.
“Because of how you were looking at me.”
A glazed look went over his face. “You had your hair pulled back that night at thebar. At first I didn’t recognize you. There was something with the light: your hair,your chin, your neck, your jaw—” He reached across the counter then like he was goingto touch her jaw, but he stopped himself. He shook his head. “I think you’re interesting,”he said finally.
“But not in a sexual way, I guess?”
Peter smiled. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” said Sheila. “How old are you?”
“Shouldn’t you already know that? You checked my ID enough times when I first startedcoming in here.”
“It’s state law,” said Sheila. “Anyway,Mr. Parker, I know that’s a fake.”
“You’re a fake,” said Peter.
“You think you can say whatever you want to me,” Sheila said. She was playing withhim, testing him. Then she felt herself lift her palm and open it. Before she’d thoughtthe action through, she had raised her hand and pulled it back, as if she plannedto strike him. She had seen a woman do this in a French movie once, and when she did,the man she was after took her to bed.
Peter raised his hand in reflex and caught her hand midair.
The force of his hand stung in her palm. She paused, rubbing her hand with her fingers.“Oww,” she said.
Peter stared at her strangely. He didn’t look like he wanted to take her to bed atall.
Sheila exhaled slowly and slapped a pack of Camel straights on the counter. “Was theresomething else you needed, sir?” she asked. “Or will that be all?”
Peter Parker looked from the cigarettes to Sheila. “That will be all,” he said finally,and he laid down $6.25 before leaving, which Sheila made a point to ring into theregister, though she would have given them to him for free. She felt furious. Shehad two hours before her shift would be over, and she could hardly stand the thoughtof it. She stared at the shelf of forty-ounce beers in the cooler directly oppositeher counter for another five minutes before pulling open the cooler door and selectingone.
“Est-ce que vous êtes libre vendredi prochain?” the French woman on the CD asked.
“Je suis désolée,” said Sheila. “C’est impossible.”
“C’est toujours pareil!” the French woman gasped. “Tu n’es jamais libre!”
Someone was throwing an important birthday party in the world of the French CD, butSheila expressed regret that she didn’t feel up to attending. Sheila declined eachone of the French woman’s pleas until her regret for not attending the party and hergeneral regret grew into something amorphous and inconsolable. She was sorry for everything.She was sorry that she had worried her parents. She was sorry that she couldn’t seemto communicate with the only person who stirred something in her. She was sorry thatshe had disappointed Anthony. She wished she could be the kind of person who couldwant the things she was supposed to want. She sat behind the counter of the gas stationand drained her forty ounces of beer and willed herself to want those things.
She stood outside of Anthony’s window for a few minutes before she threw the firstrock. She had been to his house a bunch of times when they were younger, but latelythey had stopped hanging out when they weren’t in school. His house looked smallerthan she remembered, the landscaping more overgrown. Anthony’s parents were sometimesaway on business for stretches of a few days at a time, so when this was the case,Anthony was always helping his dad out around the house on the weekends. It seemedlike he had slacked a bit lately, which probably meant he was home alone tonight,but Sheila figured she’d better not take any chances. It took the contact of threerocks for Anthony to come to his window and open it.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked when he saw Sheila standing on the sidewalk.
“Waking your ass up,” said Sheila. “Let’s go for a walk.”
Anthony laughed, “It’s nine o’clock. I’m not sleeping. You could have rung the doorbelllike a normal person.”
“Oh well,” said Sheila. “Are you coming down or not?”
Anthony closed his bedroom window and was downstairs with an extra hoodie in his handwithin two minutes. He offered the hoodie to Sheila. “You cold?”
“I don’t get cold,” said Sheila. “I’m superhuman.”
“Oh, not this shit again,” said Anthony.
“I’m kidding,” said Sheila. “I just rode my bike pretty fast over here, that’s all.”
There were woods close to Anthony’s house, and without saying so, Sheila began navigatingin that direction.
“Listen,” Anthony said as soon as they had stopped in a clearing where moonlight renderedone another visible. “I’m sorry about the other day. I shouldn’t have tried to pushyou about the dance thing.”
Sheila leaned in and hesitated only a second before kissing him on the mouth. Anthonypulled away from her in surprise, only slightly, but then he started to kiss her back.Anthony was directing the kiss now, slowly, quietly, in a way that let her know thathe respected her, that he wanted her to feel safe with him. As soon as he startedto lead the kiss, Sheila regretted what she had started. But it was Anthony who pulledaway first.
“You taste like beer,” he said. He said it like a parent.
Sheila stared at him. She shrugged. “Do you want some?” she asked. “I brought anotherone with me.” She looked at her backpack in the dirt where the other beer was waiting.Beside her backpack a tiny trampled plant was trying to wrestle its way through thesoil. It was spring. Everything was trying to figure out how to come back to life,and it seemed like it should have been an easier thing to figure out.
Anthony took a step back. “Why are you doing this?” he said.
“I don’t know,” said Sheila slowly. “I thought it was something you wanted.”
“And what do you want? Is it something you want?”
Sheila stared for a minute before she began to shake her head, slowly. She wantedto say she was sorry but the words wouldn’t come. Maybe she had exhausted her capacityfor regret already with the people throwing the French birthday party, because nowthat she really needed to produce a genuine version of the feeling, the sentimentstalled in her throat. “That’s fucked up on so many levels, Sheila,” Anthony said,and when still Sheila said nothing, Anthony turned and started walking back to hishouse alone.
She awoke with a headache. There was a pounding sound coming from somewhere, and atfirst she thought that it was inside her own brain, but when it started up again sherealized there was someone knocking on her bedroom door. After Anthony had left heralone in the woods behind his house, she had spent another few hours sitting on alog. She had polished off a reasonable portion of the second forty-ounce beer on herown. The knocking started up again. Sheila stood and walked to her door then openedit. Behind the door, her father stood with the newspaper in one hand and his readingglasses in the other.
“It’s eleven-thirty,” he said.
Sheila blinked. “So?”
“So, your mother asked me to come up and check on you. We weren’t sure if you werealive up here.” He smiled.
“Oh, I’m alive,” Sheila said. She rubbed her sore head in her hand.
“What time did you get home last night?” her dad asked. “And don’t feed me any B.S.”
Her father never swore when the girls were younger, but now he had started in hisown way, through a self-censoring system of initials he used that let him really saywhat was on his mind: “What the F. is going on here?” he’d ask. “Looks like a wholelot of B.S. if you ask me.”
“Not so late,” said Sheila. “Before midnight?”
“And Tuesday night?”
Sheila paused. She tried to remember. “I slept at Andrea and Donny’s.” It had beenthe night they went to the bar.
“Yeah,” her father said. “I know that because I talked to Andrea. But you didn’t callus and let us know you weren’t coming. We’ve barely seen you all week.”
“Sorry,” Sheila said. “I guess I wasn’t thinking.”
As a girl, Sheila had been closest to her father. He was her favorite. When the familyplayed games or sports of any kind—badminton, Monopoly—it was always Mom and Andreaversus Sheila and Dad. They won at everything. “Ten to zip, we whip!” Sheila wouldtaunt through the checked wires of the badminton net, and her dad didn’t care at allwhen she threw her racket into the air to celebrate their victory, even when it gotstuck in the branches of the sycamore tree, although Sheila’s mother thought thisbehavior illustrated poor sportsmanship. But lately, when she tried to crack a rarejoke with her father, even the idiotic sort of joke dads are supposed to love, Sheila’sdad would give a forced snicker and look back at the television.
“Are you making it a point to spend as little time here as possible? We haven’t seenyou for dinner,” her father said.
Sheila looked at the carpet on the floor of her room. She understood how she lookedto her father—like a girl without a brain in her head, without a sense of place, ofpride, of respect for her roots or thought for her actions. But she sometimes feltthat she thought too much, that she considered every option too deeply, took everyhalf-thought of a possibility too seriously.Bloom, bloom, bloom where you’re planted, the choir from the church where Sheila’s mother had taken her as a child used tosing. But what about cross-pollination? What about those shockingly colored hybridplants you sometimes saw at the farmers’ market? No one ever sang about them. Shesaid nothing.
“I guess it’s your life,” her father said finally. “You’re going to do what you wantwith it.” Then he turned to walk down the stairs.
“That’s right,” said Sheila, and she backed away from the door and willed herselfnot to cry.
She sat on her bed for only a few minutes before deciding to leave the house for theday. Sheila sometimes spent her Saturdays at Andrea and Donny’s, sifting through thenewspaper, painting her toenails, writing out French flashcards. Today, she dressedas fast as possible and went to Andrea’s without eating or brushing her teeth or hair.
“Hello?” Sheila called as she opened the door to her sister’s house. She could alreadyhear the whirring sound of early spring landscape maintenance—the neighborhood determinedto take back the lawns frost had destroyed—and through the sliding back door of hersister’s split-level house, she saw Donny in a sleeveless undershirt, pushing a lawnmowerin slow diagonals across the yard. “Andy?”
She found her sister sitting on the couch in the living room, hovering over a needleand thread that she moved between two hands. “In here,” Andrea called out, but shedidn’t look up from her lap. Sheila went to the kitchen and poured a glass of water.Then she sat down next to her sister.
“Hey,” she said.
Her sister smiled.
Andrea had recently joined a cross-stitching circle, and she was working on a throwpillow that was going to sayLOVE MAKES THIS HOUSE A HOME, but so far it just saidTHIS H, because you were supposed to start from the middle and work out to the ends to makesure it came out even.Love Makes This H. a Home, thought Sheila,Love Makes this F-ing H. a G.D.Home.
“What’s the big difference supposed to be between a house and a home?” she asked.
“Who knows?” said Andrea. “The words are really just decorations.”
The cross-stitching group that Andrea had joined called themselves the “Stitch-n-Bitch.”
“I’m not going to lie,” Andrea said. “The bitching is more fun than the stitching.”
They met every Wednesday evening in somebody’s basement.
“It’s a good hobby,” Andrea said. “You could use one.”
“I have my own hobbies,” said Sheila.
“Yeah, like what?”
Sheila cleared her throat and pulled a French flashcard out of her purse.
“Words,” her sister nearly spat. “They don’t mean anything. What if you needed toactually say something?”
Her sister frowned at the needle and thread in her lap. “How should I know?” she said.She seemed to think about this for a second. Then she said, “Say you were in trouble.Say you needed to say, ‘I demand to be released. I’m a citizen of the United Statesof America and I want to speak to a lawyer.’ What if you needed to say something likethat?” asked Andrea.
Sheila knew the verbto want, but notto demand. She knewto leave, but notto release. The limits of her skills in the language were considerable, the gaps in her knowledgemore gaping than she’d realized.
Sheila exhaled and clutched at her glass of water. “I guess I couldn’t say it,” shesaid. It felt awful to admit to it.
Andrea shrugged. “Yeah,” she said, “Or you could just say it in English.”
The following Monday Sheila walked though the halls like a ghost. She spent the entirelunch period locked in the last stall of the girls’ bathroom so as not to have toface Anthony. Following French class, Sheila lingered and approached Ms. Lawrence’sdesk. Ms. Lawrence was busy erasing the day’s lesson and chalk dust filled the airbetween them. Sheila cleared her throat.
“Miss Gower,” Ms. Lawrence said, straightening up, “what can I do for you?”
Ms. Lawrence’s English voice was slightly higher, more nasal, than her French voice,and immediately it put Sheila on edge. In English, she sounded more like any otherteacher, less like an ally.
Sheila leaned into Ms. Lawrence’s desk. “I wanted to tell you that I’m going to Paris,”she said. “In the fall.”
Ms. Lawrence’s face brightened instantly, and Sheila felt her chest open again, herbreathing steady. “That’s wonderful, Sheila,” she said.
“I just thought you would like to know,” Sheila said.
“Of course, how exciting,” said Ms. Lawrence. “Just think of how much your Frenchwill improve! If you need a recommendation or anything of that sort, I’d be happyto write you one. What type of program is it?”
Sheila watched Ms. Lawrence’s manicured fingernails pick a piece of lint off her sweaterwhile she waited for her to say something.
“Oh, it’s not really a program,” Sheila said. “I’m just going.”
“I don’t understand,” Ms. Lawrence said. “You mean you’re going on vacation?”
“No,” said Sheila, “to live. I’ve been saving for a while.”
“You know people there? Family?”
“Not really,” said Sheila.
“I see,” said Ms. Lawrence. She bit her bottom lip.
It was quiet for a second.
“It’s very expensive, Paris.”
“I thought I could maybe get a job when I get there.”
The chalk dust was settling around them. Sheila thought she could feel it driftingoff the edges of things in the room.
“Have you thought about Canada?” Ms. Lawrence said finally.
“Canada,” Sheila repeated. LikeCanada-Canada? LikeCanada-north-of-Minnesota-Canada. She felt suddenly like she was going to pass out.
“Because Paris is,” Ms. Lawrence paused. “How do I put it? Well, there’s ‘Paris,’” and here she extended her four fingers as if to place a quote around the word,“and then there’s Paris. The Paris that our textbook talks about just doesn’t exist,not really.”
“What?” Sheila said. “What do you mean?”
“I mean sometimes our expectations of a thing create a kind of unreality.”
Sheila wondered if Ms. Lawrence was insane.
“I mean it’s a city like any city. Yes, it’s wonderful, but there are Burger Kingsthere too, for example. There are ignorant drivers. There are thunderstorms. Thereare bills to pay and waiting rooms. The common cold. I mean I could keep going,” Ms.Lawrence said, but she trailed off.
“So Paris is Coralville,” Sheila said.
“Oh, there’s a thought! How interesting!” Ms. Lawrence laughed. She shook her head.“I don’t want to discourage you. But a place like Montreal is also really lovely,and it’s so much cheaper too, and closer to home. If you’re looking for an adventure,I mean. If that’s what you’re looking for.”
“An adventure,” Sheila repeated. She repeated it again biking down the Coralvillestrip to the gas station after school. As if all she had been looking for was a cheapand convenient thrill. As if she had memorized all that vocabulary and all those conjugationsto move to a place where it snowed so much that underground tunnels had to be dugso the people could still get to work in the morning without using the actual streets.“Maybe give it some thought,” Ms. Lawrence had said. “Just as an alternative. We couldresearch some options together.” Sheila swerved slightly across the white line ofthe road and was brought back to the task of pedaling by the sharp horn of a driver.
“Get on the fucking sidewalk!” the man yelled out his window at her as he sped past.
Yes, of course, Sheila thought for the instant in which problems conflate in one’s brain and thisseemed like the solution to everything that had steered off course in her life,I should get on the sidewalk!But if there had been a sidewalk, she would already be on it.SHARE THE ROADa bright yellow sign sprouting from the concrete advised, as if it were that simplea thing to share something as open and straight and endless as a road. “There is nofucking sidewalk!” Sheila screamed back, near tears, pedaling fast, but minutes later,to no one, after the man had already driven off and was surely by now circling aroundthe mall in pursuit of parking.
Sheila sat in the gas station and waited for Peter. She didn’t know what she wouldsay to him, but something was going to be said. She understood, irrationally, suddenly,that she needed him to walk into the station. It was toward the end of her shift,shortly after she’d decided that he would not come in at all, that she heard the soundof his engine cutting in the lot by the bathrooms, and she turned to see the headlightsof his cab just as he switched them off. Sheila lifted the stack of flashcards fromthe counter and placed the top one—la carotte, le céleri, la pomme de terre—directly in front of her face.
Peter walked into the gas station and stood at the counter.
“What’s going on?” Sheila asked, looking up from her flashcard. This close to herface the words on her flashcard meant nothing at all. The letters blurred. The lettersmade her feel uneasy. “Slow night?”
Peter reached into the pocket of his jacket and placed a shiny gun on the counter.He didn’t say anything. He just took it out the way someone might take out a set ofcar keys and placed it up there as if it had been uncomfortable in his pocket.
“Uh, what’s with the gun?”
“A proposition,” said Peter.
“What is a gun doing on my counter?” Sheila clarified. Her heart beat faster, butit wasn’t fear exactly that directed her blood to move like this.
“Have you ever been to Chicago?” asked Peter.
“I’m going to Chicago,” said Peter. “I thought you might like to come with me.”
Sheila knew she wasn’t putting in twenty-plus hours a week at the Sinclair stationto go to a place like that.
“I was going to leave the country soon,” she said.
Peter shrugged. “So I’m heading east. It’s on your way.”
“What’s in it for me?” asked Sheila.
“If you don’t want to go,” he said, “I’ll go without you.”
It occurred to her then that maybe this was one way to leave a place, with a boy anda gun. This was teamwork, having a plan.
“What’s the plan?” she asked. “I’m assuming there is one.”
Peter cleared his throat. “I will hold you at gunpoint. You will empty the cash registerinto my duffle bag. We will drive to Chicago. Fast,” he added.
A city is a city, she thought,is a city is a city. Is that what Ms. Lawrence had been trying to tell her? She thought of her fatheras he had looked standing in the doorway of her bedroom. She raised her chin and lookedstraight into the eye of the security camera.
“I don’t even know your real name,” said Sheila.
“Sure you do, Gwen,” he said quietly.
He looked at her queerly, smiled at her with his eyes, as if they two were in on somethingwonderful, some unnamed thing she wanted.
“Point the gun at me,” said Sheila.
Peter Parker did as he was told.
FOR A LITTLE OVER TWOhours, Peter had been driving up and down the Coralville strip with a gun in theglove compartment. It wasn’t even his glove compartment. It belonged to Yellow Cabnumber ninety-seven, the taxi he drove most nights. Any one of the inebriated clientshe might pick up—and, working nights in a town bordering a college town, a good percentageof his clientele was inebriated—could get curious in the front seat and find the gunnestled between outdated city maps and his emergency stack of Dairy Queen napkins.Peter removed the gun from the glove compartment while stopped at a red light; headmired its petite muzzle and short black trigger, then he lay it down quietly onthe passenger seat. He didn’t know if it was loaded; he had been afraid to open itup and find out. Better not to know, better to allow himself to be in awe of the certaindanger of it, to use this danger as backup, a motivation to walk into the gas stationand say what he had seen.
What he had seen was the girl, the gas station attendant who showed up in his dreams.Often she appeared in her underwear. In these regular dreams, the girl’s underwearwas always white cotton with lace trim. She spoke French to him in these dreams, butnot much else happened, and anyway Peter didn’t understand French, so she could havebeen saying anything—“Nice weather we’ve been having,” or “Can I borrow your car?”—thestuff of everyday necessity. Still, these dreams were nice. They did nothing to upsetPeter.
He was on his way to the gas station now. Perhaps she would be expecting him, becauseit was almost eight and he hadn’t yet been there. Peter pulled off onto the shoulderof Highway 6, half a mile from the station. He picked up the gun from the passengerseat.The shotgun rides shotgun. But it was a handgun, and he was hoping the girl would want to sit beside him.
He had been driving a cab for the past five years, but he had been coming in to visitthe girl when his shifts were slow only for the past month or so now. She was niceto look at even if she sometimes acted like she didn’t want him around. The firsttime he’d come into the station, the girl stared at his ID for maybe a full minute,but she hadn’t said a word about it.
“Something wrong?” Peter had asked her.
The license he carried in his wallet was a fake he’d made some years ago on the occasionof his twentieth birthday. But everyone called him Peter anyway, so it didn’t seemto make much of a difference. Unless he had to sign his name for some tax or employmentpurpose, this was the license he pulled from his wallet. His face was getting oldand familiar enough around town not to be asked for identification much, so thereseemed to be little reason for an adolescent gas station attendant to make him feelself-conscious about it. “Is there a problem?” Peter repeated.
“Not unless there’s something I’m missing,” the girl said, in a way that made it seemas if he were the one with the staring problem.
The next time he went in to buy cigarettes, Peter pulled off the cellophane and knockedone out from the pack. “Do you mind?” he asked, raising the freed cigarette halfwayto his mouth.
“You’re not allowed to smoke in here, if that’s what you’re asking,” she said. Hestarted to make his way toward the door when he heard her say, “Unless you’ve gotone for me?”
Peter turned to face the girl, regarding the entire wall of cigarettes behind her,in every package and variety imaginable—hard packs, soft packs, filtered, unfiltered.
“I just want one,” the girl said. “I’m not really a smoker.” She reached out her hand,and Peter placed a single cigarette between her fingers.
After that, he’d made a habit of coming in. The girl would have his pack waiting forhim. While Peter finished his cigarette in the station, the girl would tell him randomfacts about foreign countries she thought he’d appreciate. “In Paris, you can bringdogs everywhere,” she’d say. “Into restaurants and everything. Nobody cares, it’sjust the culture.”
“Hmm. Sounds like a health code violation,” Peter would say.
“You’re really arrogant,” the girl said, smiling, “if you think your health codesare the same as everyone else’s.”
It was around this time the girl had started showing up in his dreams.
But more recently, there had been no French, no underwear. What Peter kept seeingin his sleep—it had happened every night this week—could not exactly be called a dream,and he knew better than to call it that. It was closer to sensing something whileawake—complete with smell and taste and touch. The things Peter saw weren’t alwaysthe most important things. They were often isolated and individual, not enough toaffect more than a few other lives.
His mother called them nightmares. The first time it happened he was seven: he wokeup coughing, a mouthful of water lodged in this throat. His mother had been sittingat his bedside, striking his back, trying to get his lungs to take in the air. Shethought that he must have reached for the glass of water on his nightstand in a dream,and tried to drink. But Peter had not been the one swallowing water in his dream.It had been quiet ten-year-old Henry Macy from the neighborhood whom Peter had watcheddrown, and when two weeks later the Macys found Henry face-down in a flooded ditch,Peter was afraid to tell his mother that he had seen it happen exactly the same wayand had done nothing to warn anyone. Most nights he would dream like any other person,but there were a handful of things he saw around this time that could not be circumscribedto his own dormant brain. He saw the grocer slip on a patch of ice and break his hip,one week before he saw him lose his balance chasing a cart in the parking lot; hedreamed his own dog running away from home and wouldn’t leave the dog’s side unlessabsolutely necessary, until one time, they were playing with a tennis ball together,and he could do nothing to stop the dog from bolting out of the yard, away from him;for the past month he had endlessly dreamed two women he didn’t recognize fall asleepat the wheel of their car and slam into a highway median in the middle of the night.The women were so young. Girls. They looked barely old enough to drive, and when theycrashed into the median each night Peter watched their long hair rush forward towardthe dashboard as the car began to spin.
He told no one.
This week, six nights in a row, he had seen the same sequence of information eachtime he closed his eyes. Always, it started with the girl. Peter would feel himselfgiving in toward sleep when the girl from the gas station would appear there in hisbedroom beside him. She would be sitting on her knees near the foot of his bed, likesomeone in prayer, when the warm feeling started to move around the room, when theheat got under his fingernails, and then the heat became a warm breeze from an openwindow in his taxi. The taxi was heading east on Interstate 80. The gun was in theglove compartment. He was driving and the girl sat beside him in the car.
Just before he woke up each night he would get as far as the strange apartment. Hewould watch the man swallow water. He would watch the man swallow pills.
It was the same way his brother had died.
But the girl had seen it too; she had been there in the bedroom, and somehow thathad implicated her. It made Peter think she was a part of the equation. It made himthink she was part of everything that would come next.
Peter lifted the gun from the passenger seat and turned it in his hand, assessingthe level of threat it posed. He didn’t want to scare the girl, but he wanted to encourageher to help him. It wasn’t entirely clear to him what the point of the gun was, butit had been in his hand in the dream. It seemed important to use it somehow, to pointit somewhere. Peter tried to think of it more as a prop than a weapon, something tokeep in his hand in order to ensure he would say what he had come to say, to makecertain he wouldn’t deviate. He angled the rearview mirror so he could see himself,so he could watch his mouth form the lines. He understood, then, how he would appearto the girl when he entered the gas station. “I’m going to Chicago,” Peter practiced,steadying the gun so his hand wouldn’t shake, his best attempt to sound confidentand inviting. “I’m going to Chicago. I thought you might like to come with me.”
At twenty-six years old, Peter knew himself to be an expert driver, a decent poolplayer, reasonably good looking, but he only needed to consult the corners of hismouth in the rearview mirror of his taxi to understand what he was slowly becoming:a man nearing thirty, living alone with his mother. The arrangement had been borneof necessity and habit. They had been living like this for the past twenty years.
He never knew his father. As a child, he had been afraid that his father was botheverywhere and nowhere. Any male of a certain age he encountered in the street whowas not the father of another child he knew had the potential to be him. The man walkinga dog in front of the movie theater? Possibly. The new assistant principal of hisschool? Unlikely, but maybe. Peter’s mother had been of the opinion that childrendidn’t really need to know the details of everything, only the gist, so he understoodthat his father and mother had met in Davenport, Iowa, that they had quarreled beforehe was born, that he and Peter’s mother had lost contact shortly after. All the photographshad been cleared out of the house. Peter had found an old Polaroid of his father,but in the moment it captures, his father is bent over his shoe, his features largelyobscured by the angle. In the photograph, his father is sitting on the living-roomsofa—the same one Peter had sat on for years!—pressing his heels into a pair of loaferswith a shoe horn. A shoe horn? The instrument seemed superfluous to him and slightlyawkward, but his mother insisted that in those days everyone used them.
Then, there was what happened when his brother went missing. Peter had been six atthe time, and his brother eighteen. For two full days, Peter and his mother searchedthe parks and police stations, while Jake had slept in the closet of his childhoodbedroom after swallowing every pill in the house. When their mother found him, she’dhad his stomach pumped clean, but two weeks after his medical release, Jake had triedit again and succeeded. Then Peter and his mother had lived alone in the house. Sometimeshis mother played the piano in the evenings, and Peter sat beside her and turned thepages of her music when she said, “Now.” Sometimes they went to the movies and orderedthe large popcorn with extra butter to share. But the house was too big for them.It was two stories high with enough rooms for entertaining—which they never did—andoften Peter had a whole story and an attic to himself to make all the noise he wanted.But mostly he stayed quiet.
He had been playing dominos with his mother when he first understood. They did thatsometimes, if he didn’t have homework, and after the dishes were done. His motherwould wash and Peter dried. There was a drawer in the kitchen that held the dominosand he and his mother would divvy them up face-down on the table. Every once in awhile, they convinced Jake to play with them. But usually he was too busy to playwith dominos.
Peter was counting dots. He was very close to winning.
“You and me, honey,” his mom had said very quietly.
Peter was counting the dots on his tiles. He was trying to concentrate. Sometimesif his mom drank a little wine with dinner she talked quietly, under her breath. Itwas not such a strange thing. He was adding the dots on the tiles in multiples offive. Those were the rules.
“How about it?” his mom said again. “How about you and me.” Her voice was so softit sounded like it was coming from the other room.
Peter looked up at his mom.
“How about what?” he said.
His mom was running the palm of her hand slowly up and down the side of her face.She wasn’t looking at him. And she wasn’t looking at her tiles either.
“Honey?” his mom said after a minute.
He didn’t know why he’d said something that night. His brother sometimes didn’t comehome for a few days at a time. Even after his first try with the pills, it was notsuch a strange thing for Peter to be left alone with his mother in the evening.
She hadn’t told him then. It was another four days of waiting before his mother wouldtell him Jake was gone. Still, Peter had understood then that it would be him andhis mother alone for some time.
Around then Peter began spending his afternoons in his brother’s old bedroom. Hismom was often working late into the evening at the hospital, and after school Peterwas alone in the house. His mother had kept the room exactly as he had left it, soit wasn’t hard to find the milk crates filled with comic books and drag them out ofhis closet one at a time. At first, the sliding doors of the closet had been a placethat Peter avoided. He looked at them and saw his brother slumped in the corner asthey’d found him before his mother dragged him out. But eventually, he could lookat the closet doors and think only of the comic books behind them.
Peter had never seen his brother read the comic books. But once Peter had watchedhim from the hallway sorting through issues, organizing them into the crates wherethey were kept.
“You’re not a very good spy,” Jake had called into the hallway. “I can hear you breathing.”
Peter knelt on the floor next to the crate Jake was pulling from. There were hundredsof them, and Peter had the impulse to run his fingers along their stapled edges.
“Take one if you want,” Jake said. “It’s just a pile of trash.” But he never threwthem out, and when Peter found them after Jake left, each issue was still preservedin a cellophane sleeve.
“Where did you get them?” Peter had said, but then he was sorry that he asked.
“My old man,” Jake replied.
Jake’s father was not Peter’s father, but when Jake talked about him, sometimes Peterliked to pretend he was. Jake remembered all kinds of things about his dad—his tastein music, the type of beer he liked to drink, where he used to take Jake sleddingwhen it snowed—but Peter remembered nothing of his own father, and his mother neverspoke of him.
“Can I have this one?” Peter asked.
“Any one you want,” Jake said, without looking.
Peter chose a later issue, once Spider-Man had already settled down with Mary Jane,because he was attracted to the red swath of her hair, filling the empty space; butit was later—it was after Jake was gone—that he read from the beginning of the story.How Spider-Man was just a regular kid whose family kept getting killed by villains,and what it was like to be lonely for a long time before he discovered these powersthat showed up out of nowhere, and then even after that, to be lonely sometimes still.
After school, during the afternoons, Peter read the comic books Jake had left behind,and he started to realize there were certain undeniable similarities. There was along history of superheroes being lied to, men and women with superhuman strengthswho only ever had been told half their own stories and had to find out the other halfon their own. It also wasn’t uncommon for their families to be largely absent or deadby the time they reached adulthood. These were the facts. Peter was not embellishing.He also was not suggesting that his was the life of such a hero—obviously there werecertain abilities missing. For example, he couldn’t move buildings. He couldn’t propeloff them either. He couldn’t see through them. Basically, he couldn’t do anythingextraordinary having to do with buildings. So he wasn’t superhuman. It had reallybeen devastating to come to this realization. But when his so-called nightmares hadstarted shortly after, Peter understood that while he wasn’tnecessarilysuperhuman, there was definitely something abnormal going on with him. When, at eightyears old, he told his mother that he wanted her to call him a different name, a namethat just happened to be the same as Spider-Man’s alter ego, his mother complied.She was working under the assumption that this request was a reasonable response tochildhood trauma, and at the suggestion of some child psychologist at the hospital,she went with it. But the more time that went on, the easier it was for the name tobecome permanent, and for neither of them to use his old name at all.
Was that all? It was habit and nothing more? Not exactly. Yes, it was habit, but evennow, there was some part of Peter that felt grateful to have this story to defer to.If he actually had a friend call him out and say, “Who do you think you are, Parker?You think you’re pretty goddamn special, huh?” of course Peter would punch the friendin the arm and insult him for even coming to this conclusion in jest. “Yeah, I’m afucking superhero,” he’d say. “Let’s go out back and I’ll teach you how to fly.” He’dgive the guy a real hard time, rile him up a little for the mere suggestion that hewas trying to be someone he was not, trying to be something better than what he was.There would be a good laugh over that. But Peter mostly spent the evenings with hismother. There were a few guys he talked to over the CB radio or in the dispatch office,but that was it.
The thing about keeping to yourself for so long is that there’s no need to defendyour actions, so a lot of gray area has room to grow. It is possible for two thingsto be true at once in one’s own mind, for one statement and its opposite to coexist,so that Peter could understand on the one hand the he is no one, that he is nothingspecial, and at the same time to create a private space in which he knows certainthings about himself to be irrefutable. That there is something special about him,that there is something wrong with him, that the thing that is special/wrong has todo with reading too many comic books as a kid and with the dreams that started whenhis brother died, that under the right conditions, in the right place and time, hecould actually be the kind of person who could use his gift or curse to do somethingextraordinary.
The business of saving the world is tricky. The incredible difficulty of the endeavorweighed on superheroes’ brains constantly. Spider-Man, for example, was overwhelmedby how to balance superheroic feats with girls and biology class. But it was trickyeven to save a single living thing. The problem was that, in real life, events arealways already happening all the time, and there’s often little to be done in termsof interception.
This is how it happened when Peter’s dog ran away.
Patch was Jake’s dog first. Jake had brought him home from the shelter one afternoonwith a red collar and a twenty-pound bag of food.
“Who’s this?” Peter’s mother had asked.
“Our new best friend,” Jake said. He placed his hand on the dog’s head and told Patchto sit, but the dog only scratched its ear.
“He’s got all his shots?” their mother said.
“Sure,” Jake said.
Peter had given the dog his hand to lick, and the dog complied. “So you’re his favorite,”Jake said. “Maybe you want to take him for a walk with me?”
By this time, there was little their mother could do to prevent the dog from inhabitingtheir home. Peter had the leash and collar in his hand and Jake was helping him fastenit around the dog’s thick neck. As they walked, Jake told Peter about how dogs werereally the first ones in space, but the reason no one around here ever talked aboutit is because it was Russian dogs, and everyone had hated the Russians so much.
“Why?” Peter said.
“Because they’re communists,” Jake said.
Peter nodded. “The dogs too?”
“Yeah, they’re communists too,” Jake said. “But they can’t help it.”
Peter was five. He was interested in space travel.
Jake said, “You think Patch would make a good astronaut?”
“Yeah,” Peter said.
“Hell, you’re probably right,” Jake said, and Peter had laughed because he thoughtthis was supposed to be a joke.
But later that night, after Peter’s bedtime, when he had snuck downstairs to watchhis brother smoke a cigarette on the front porch, he heard Jake talking to the dog.He heard his brother say the wordsorbital velocityandstratosphere. “The problem with space travel,” Peter heard his brother say to the dog, “is thatyou always think there’s going to be enough oxygen saved up to go around, but therenever is.” This was the first time it occurred to Peter that maybe there was somethingwrong with his brother.
Later—after they both were gone—it would seem sometimes as if his brother and thedog had planned it this way, that while Peter sat at home alone with his mother anddusted the piano keys with his fingers, Jake and the dog were in orbit somewhere,Jake asking the dog to give him his paw, and then feeding him some cryogenically frozenfood scraps.
When Patch finally ran away, Jake had already been gone for four years. Peter wasten years old when he started dreaming of Patch standing on the cusp of a field neartheir house, looking both ways as if contemplating something. Within two weeks ofthe first occurrence of this dream, the dog was gone. For those two weeks, Patch couldn’teven go out into the yard to go to the bathroom without Peter following him out thedoor and crouching beside him.
They had been playing fetch with a tennis ball. “Go, fetch,” Peter told Patch, andPatch did. He was the sort of dog who was happy to fetch, content to bring any objectback to the place from which it was launched. Peter was working on his arm. He wasold enough to play baseball, but didn’t, and he wanted to know what it felt like tothrow.
“Patch, fetch,” he yelled, and the tennis ball shot into the air with the dog trailingbeneath it. Patch gathered the tennis ball between his teeth and lifted it, but thenrather than bounding back with it, he paused.
“Patch, come,” Peter called.
Patch sat down. As soon as he saw the dog sit, Peter knew that it had started to happen.The dog looked at Peter and then he looked the other way, beyond their property, wherethere was an expanse of farm land full of corn that was already half harvested, andbeyond that a forest of pine and fir. Peter didn’t call the dog again. He looked Patchin the eye, and under his breath he said,please, but it was an entreaty to no one, least of all to Patch, who clearly was alreadyfollowing a path he intended to keep. Patch dropped the tennis ball. He looked atPeter for maybe another four seconds before running the other way.
He couldn’t save his brother. Even with warning, he couldn’t keep his dog. How manynights had he watched Patch run from him? He had watched him take off at least fifteentimes in his dreams. You’d think that it would make the real moment, the moment inwhich it truly happened, feel like just another enactment of the same scene. But itwas different. It was the moment in which the possibility arrived to change the courseof things. It was for this reason that he now wanted to save the man he’d seen swallowingpills in the bathroom, to finally for once separate someone from these certain fateshe saw at night, and see if anyone was better off for his effort.
The house had taken on the particular state of disrepair endemic to grown men wholive alone with their mothers. It was not just that there were perpetually socks inthe dryer and dishes in the sink; their entire existence resembled the domestic unrestof an elderly couple at the brink of not being able to care for themselves. Except—ofcourse—she was his mother, and he was not even thirty years old. His mother was sixty-twoand retired; Peter drove his taxi at night. For most of the day they shared the house.
Despite the long shifts she’d worked when he was a child, Peter’s mother had put inevery effort to raise him with a modicum of normalcy. When she returned from her shiftsat the hospital, she cooked dinners that represented each of the four major food groups.There was a deficit of cereals with high sugar content in the pantry. Red M&M’s, containingRed Dye 40, a substance suspected to cause cancer in laboratory animals, were separatedfrom the other colors in the pack and expelled upon opening. His mother had givenhim piano lessons. From the age of eight, he had sat with his mother—who had pulleda kitchen chair beside the piano bench, instructing his small hand in the preemptiveposture of stretching for an octave. She taught him the way his thumb must tuck neatlybeneath his middle finger to run through a handful of the major scales without impediment.It was a kind of therapy for them both. Peter knew the lessons put his mother in mindof her own childhood, in Davenport, when her marriage and children were just somelooming murky things in a future she still wanted to meet. For Peter, the exercisetaught him a peculiar sort of patience, to read this foreign language and begin, slowly,to comprehend its cues—it took his mind off other things. But he was never any goodat it. He was sixteen when he told his mother he was through with the lessons. Thoughhe could tell that it disappointed her, this was a routine she let go without protest.
These days, the older woman his mother had become was a departure from the motherhe’d grown up with. She seemed somehow to need a mother herself. Peter would comehome from driving a night shift and round the corner of the kitchen to find it empty.
“Out here,” she called into the house. “I’m having breakfast on the patio.”
Peter followed the sound of her voice, and found his mother propped up in a lawn chair—thefirst streaks of sunlight passing over the yard—staring into space with a piece ofstring cheese clenched in her fist.
“Hi, honey,” she said.
“Where’s your breakfast?” Peter said. He looked around, hoping to see a bowl of cerealstashed behind the mums, a bagel beside the birdfeeder.
His mother waived the string cheese above her head like a limp flag.
“Strings of cheese?” Peter said.
“And some almonds,” his mother said.
She freed another thread from the cheese and placed it in her mouth.
“Don’t you want eggs or something, Mom?” he said.
“No,” she said.
Peter was still working out whether he was going to let the conversation go at thatwhen his mother had theatrically lifted the rest of the log of string cheese and tooka big bite out of it and finished it off that way.
Then there was how he’d found the gun. His mother was getting ready for her wateraerobics class at the Y, and Peter was going to give her a ride. His mother was perfectlyfit to drive; it was her car, but if he wasn’t working himself, he drove her, andwaited in a bar near the Y for her class to end. He knocked on the door of his mother’sbedroom when it was time to leave.
“Come in,” she said.
She was sitting on an armchair in the corner of her room, leaning over each foot totie her shoes. It wasn’t until he was halfway into the room that he noticed somethingoff in the opposite corner. Her top drawer was open, and its contents spilled fromthe drawer onto the dresser—leggings, underwear, swimsuits, and some sharp, dark objectthat immediately contrasted itself from the soft-hued stockings and undergarments.
“Mom?” he said. The question that was supposed to come next was so evident it wasn’treadily available on his tongue. The gun looked so absurd in its disorderly pile,Peter paused for a moment, as if there were a clear reason for its presence that heonly needed to summon.
“Just about ready,” his mother said.
Peter felt himself begin to back up, slowly. “I’ll pull around the car,” he said.
The bar where he drank while he waited for his mother was a local staple, the sizeof a trailer, with animal heads and glossy eight-by-tens signed by minor celebritiestacked to the walls at odd angles. Peter sat at the bar and began counting out singlesto pay for his drink. Everyone sitting at the bar had the old haggard look of extendedfamily, the uncles and cousins whose faces you recognize and nod amicably toward butfeel no need to converse with.
Peter ordered a beer, took the first sip. He had swiveled around on his stool to leanhis elbows on the bar when he saw the girl from the gas station. She sat with a smallgroup, and it was clear she’d noticed him but she was trying not to look his way.It took him maybe thirty seconds to get her to look up. He fixed his eyes on her ashe drank his beer. The girl’s eyes were darting around like crazy, trying to findsomewhere else to rest. Her dark blond hair was pulled back in a lopsided ponytail,slightly off center, and she was pretending to laugh at something someone said thathe couldn’t hear. He thought then that she was more interesting-looking than he’drealized at the gas station. He thought if she would look up, he would walk over towhere she was sitting and buy her a drink.
But a moment later, when her eyes met his for an instant, Peter felt himself lookaway, down at some stray cat from the neighborhood that had wandered into the barand was sitting on its tail by the pool table. “Evening, Edgar,” the bartender addressedthe cat, but the cat paid attention to no one. When Peter looked up again, the girlwas no longer sitting in the booth with her friends. He took this as a cue to finishhis pint in a single gulp and drive to the Y to wait for his mother.
When her class got out, his mother walked from the building alone, her gym bag firmlyunder her shoulder, and got in the car. His eyes were fixed on the road and his motherhad just stopped fidgeting with the radio when he heard himself say, “So,” as if casually,“there’s a gun in your underwear drawer.”
“Yeah,” his mother said. “What about it?”
“Isn’t there?” Peter said.
His mother exhaled quickly through her nose, half of someone else’s laugh. “It’s beenthere for years,” his mother said. “It was your father’s.”
Peter felt all the muscles in his neck tense. “Have you ever used it?”
His mother laughed. “Lord no, what do you think?”
He wasn’t sure what he thought, but already, before he even drove the car home orpulled it into the driveway, before he closed his bedroom door and pulled back thecovers of his bed, Peter had an uneasy feeling in the bottom of his chest that hadsomething to do with the gun in his mother’s underwear drawer, and something to dowith the girl. It was that evening that he first had the dream, and after that, thedream came nightly.
He tried once more, that week, to go back to the station. He wanted to see the girl,to see if she too could sense something strange between them, to see if she understoodthat she was showing up on the floor of his bedroom every evening, as if on schedule.
“I saw you in the bar the other night,” the girl said when he walked in.
“Yes,” said Peter. “I saw you too.” He wanted to explain how at the bar he felt hehad to look away. He wanted to say, You keep coming in my room at night and kneelingon the floor. He wanted to ask her who she was, to warn her that she was showing upin his sleep every night, and what that might mean.
“Do you think I’m pretty?” the girl asked.
“How should I know?” he said. The conversation was already derailing itself into themost vapid sort of flirtation, and Peter tried his best to set a better course forthe things he’d come to say. “I think you’re interesting,” he said.
“But not in a sexual way, right?”
It was impossible. She wanted him to kiss her. He could feel it, and though a fewweeks ago, it was exactly what he would have hoped for, he now felt annoyed.
“You’re a fake,” Peter heard himself say to the girl. He felt misdirected. Yes, thegirl was sweet and pretty, but that was it; there was nothing more to search for there.
Everything up until this point the girl seemed to take in stride. But then she lookeddown at the counter, trained her eyes there. She was staring at the keys of the cashregister when she spoke again. “You think you can say what you want to me,” the girlsaid.
Before she even lifted her hand, Peter had raised his own to catch her palm midair.The reflex at first obscured the reality that she had been about to hit him. Initially,Peter understood only that there was something too familiar about this action, somethingenacted, as if he already knew that the girl was going to try to strike him before she’deven finished speaking. He was rattled by it. He walked out of the gas station ina daze and began to drive, and it was only when he was at a stoplight two miles awaythat he understood the reason he knew what the girl was going to do after speakingthat line was because he had read it somewhere already. He had read it inThe Amazing Spider-Man# 37.
There are moments when such slippage occurs, between the regular, everyday world andthe interior worlds created, and these are the moments that fortify and support theworst delusions. Peter knew this much. He knew there was absolutely no evidence tosupport the conclusion that the girl in the gas station was Gwen Stacy. He knew—furthermore,because after all, he wasn’t insane—that Gwen Stacy was a fictional character createdby Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, who did not exist outside of a hundred and some odd numberissues of comic books from the sixties and seventies. But how to reconcile the simultaneoustruths that clamored for attention in his chest, one asserting that this girl, thisgas station attendant, was the living incarnation of Spider-Man’s first love: shehad spoken a line straight out of the comic book.
InASM# 37, the attempted slap is a kind of physical awakening, of mutual attraction, oftension, of the hierarchy of human relationships in the world not necessarily beingquite what they’ve always seemed. Peter offers to walk Gwen to class, but feelingsnubbed by his aloofness the past few weeks, Gwen Stacy replies, “What are you doing,Mr. Parker—slumming? Usually you’re too stuck up to say hello to anyone.” Peter suggeststhat Gwen is a “temperamental female.” A few more words are exchanged before Gwenaccuses Peter of arrogance, and throws out her hand to slap Peter on the cheek, half-playfully,but with anger behind it as well: “You think you can say what you want to me, andthen—Oww!” Peter catches her hand in his palm before it reaches his cheek. After thismoment, the world shifts slightly to accommodate the reality introduced by Gwen Stacy’saction. Parker seems to feel himself capable of flirting, of asking for what he wants,of calling out his adversaries at school. This quiet moment of Gwendolyn Stacy’s attemptedviolence seems to alert to him that he is someone worth the effort of slapping, thathis actions matter—that independent of any heroic acts he may perform as his alterego—he matters. Gwen Stacy makes Peter Parker count for something besides the freakishnessthat he uses to save the city from villains each night.
Peter continued driving down Highway 6 until the ominous expanse of the CoralvilleMall spread before him in the distance. There was a carousel in the parking lot andon it children were rotating. There was a theater where the blockbuster movies playedevery summer. Also an ice-skating rink. There had been a pond that sometimes frozein the back of his house where he and his brother would slip around in their sneakersin the winter, but this was long before the Coralville Mall had been built, with itsassemblage of various atrocities and attractions. He parked the taxi and gazed ontothe rink, thinking of Jake, of those winters when there was nothing to do but slideacross the expanse of the water and hope not to fall through the thin parts. Beforehe had considered exactly what he was doing there, Peter approached the ticket counter.He purchased an hour on the ice, rented a pair of skates, and laced them up. He emergedon the rink and clutched the side railing as he slowly made his way around it.
In his dreams, the girl sat beside him in the taxi. What a small detail this was,her presence beside him, but what a difference it made to have someone else there,to give witness to the things he saw. It was a shock to the system to consider thatthe things he saw were real enough that someone could bear witness to them. The childrenwere going around the rink quickly in pairs, and they were singing along to whateversong was playing over the loudspeakers, a song that sounded vaguely familiar, likesomething outdated, something kids shouldn’t know.
“Mister, gotta get off the ice,” one kid was saying, and it took Peter a moment torealize that the kid was speaking to him.
Peter regarded the kid who had addressed him, a boy of twelve or thirteen who washolding the hand of a girl who looked a little older. “Couple skate,” the boy said.Peter nodded, not exactly sure what the boy was getting at, until he looked to theboy’s companion who seemed to take amusement at Peter’s unfamiliarity with the rulesof the rink.
These kids had grown up with things he hadn’t—ice skates, technology, different kindsof wars. They understood things that he did not. Peter mumbled in appreciation forthe tip, and he started to skate toward the swinging door. When he tried to exit,he noticed a girl of about nine standing in his way. She was wearing one of thosecostumes, with the leggings that are the color of skin and a skirt that swirls aroundas she spins. Her lips were heavy with gloss, like the mouth of a doll. She held outher hand.
Peter looked behind him but there was no one there.
“Do you need a partner?” the girl asked.
“No, thanks,” Peter said.
The girl rolled her eyes.
“I don’t know how to skate,” Peter said.
“Come on,” the girl said. “The song is half over.”
Precariously, Peter placed his hand in the hand of the nine-year-old girl, resisting,holding back at first, to let it be made clear to any father or legal guardian whomight be watching that the girl was the one who was directing things here: Peter wassimply following her lead. He was not a pedophile. He did not habitually come to theice rink to find the hands of prepubescent girls to clutch during couple skate.
In his first solo laps, Peter had stayed very close to the outer wall, to have somethingto fall into should he lose his balance. But this girl was leading him out to thecenter of the ice where there was nothing to hold onto, nothing to guide him but herhand.
“You’ve never been on the ice before?” the girl asked him.
“Not like this, with skates, no,” said Peter.
“You don’t have to hold on so tight,” she said. “It’s easy.”
“How long have you been doing this?” Peter asked.
“My entire life,” the girl said, and she said it with such quiet dignity, it was easyto forget he was speaking to a child whose entire life was a fraction of a reasonableamount of time. It seemed incredible that she could take herself so seriously, couldtrust in her experience so effortlessly. Behind the child’s hand, Peter could stillmake out the slow tingle of the place in his palm where he had caught the girl’s slapin the gas station. It seemed to be couched there under the skin, auguring something.He began to skate, and as he did, he felt a slow certainty growing in his body. Therewere patterns carved into the ice from the laps of skaters who had passed before them,who were continuously passing, and he clutched the hand of the child, for balance,for assurance, but after a little while he felt steady; he felt that for the firsttime in his life, he was following signs that were meant for him to interpret. Thathe would find himself capable of things heretofore impossible. The song neared itsclimax,Love shack, baby love shack! Love shack bay-ay-bee-ee!A love shack seemed in those moments a sensible place, not only a place where peoplecould get together, but a place where people could get things done, before it mutatedagain into an absurd place, an idiotic made-up, vaguely seedy place conjured by peopleon drugs—a place that didn’t exist.
When he hit the ice, the girl went down with him. He tried to release his grasp fromher hand, but the weight of his body was so much greater than hers, the momentum ofthe fall pulled her on top of him. So first there was the impact of his tailbone hittingthe ground, and afterward the impact of her body hitting his. There was no blood,no breaks, no sprains, no reason for the pairs of skaters to do little more than shifttheir path slightly to accommodate the obstruction on the ice. But in the moment inwhich he began to fall, thinking back on it from his bedroom later that night, therewas no fear. The drop weight of panic into the stomach, yes, but it was closer topleasure. The throb in his tailbone was an old familiar pain, he was remembering now,there on the surface of the pond, Peter and his brother: they had tried to fall. Theobject of the game had been to wipe out in the most outrageous and unimaginable ways,how they had flung the weight of their sneakers into the thinnest parts of the ice,how they had hoped to fall through the ice and drag up a fish, its body squirmingoutside the breathable water. To be the most reckless, the most unhinged, the firstto break into another dangerous world and bring back evidence of his daring achievement.
“Are you all right?” The child stood over him, or she had been standing over him fora while, a slight concern passing over her tiny brow, her toothpick legs beneath heragain, the sequins on her costume glittering like some promise, close enough to touch.
Peter looked up at her. He smiled.
For the first night in seven, the dream did not come. Peter didn’t wish for it, orwonder where it had gone. Even without it, he had made up his mind on what he wasgoing to do. He stayed up late in his bedroom, composing a note that would serve tocommunicate his absence to his mother, until he returned.
I’m sorry for leaving unannounced, the same as everyone. I borrowed Dad’s gun, butdon’t worry, it’s not what you think. I’m coming back—believe me.
There was nothing about the note that felt right, but it was the best he could comeup with after several hours of trying. He went to sleep with the note under his pillow,and when he read it again in the morning, he decided it would do. Then he brushedhis teeth and made a pot of coffee. With every action, his joints tingled beneathhis skin. He sat with his mother on the patio for half the day, and only in the lateafternoon, just before his shift, did he begin to pack a small duffle bag. When itwas time for work, he let himself quietly into his mother’s room. He found the gunwrapped in one of her stockings as if it had been quietly waiting for him there foryears. He left the note face-up on her dresser. He kissed his mother goodbye. Thenhe walked to the Yellow Cab lot, duffle bag in hand, and picked up taxi number ninety-seven,whoseFOR HIREsign he extinguished halfway down the Coralville strip, and continued driving tothe gas station where he would collect the girl whom he had already begun to thinkof as Gwen Stacy, and explain to her the nature of the responsibility they shared.
TEN MINUTES LATERshe was beside Peter in the car, heading due east on Interstate 80 in a stolen taxi.The radio in the taxi was promising a cloudless, breezy night, lows in the low sixties.The air on the interstate felt thin and bright and hydrating as a glass of water.All the windows were open, and the longest strands of Peter’s hair were blowing allover the place, skirting in and out of his eyes. He didn’t drive fast like he’d saidthey would: he was a cautious driver, using the left lane only for passing, the needleof the speedometer hovering just above sixty-five. Most of the guys that Sheila knew—Donnyand his friends, mainly—were pretty reckless drivers.
The CB radio was saying, “Fifty check. Fifty check. Fifty, head out and check me atMormon Trek. Fifty, where the hell you at?”
“Are you fifty?” asked Sheila.
“Can’t you turn that thing off?”
“No. You’ll be able to tune it out after a while.”
All together, there had been $716.64 in the cash register. Usually it would have beenless on a weekday, but Sheila was nearing the end of a long shift. There was a singlesurveillance camera in the corner of the station, which would eventually be viewed,but there was no audio feed, so the crime would perhaps look authentic—which couldbe a good thing or bad thing, depending on the plan. But there didn’t seem to be muchof a plan. Of course, if anyone viewed the tape, there would be the matter of thefive minutes of calm conversation she and Peter had before he pointed the gun at her.There was the possibility it wouldn’t look authentic in the least. Sheila had turnedthe pumps off and left a little sign on the door of the station that saidBACK IN A MINUTE, which probably wasn’t the right sign to leave.OUT OF ORDERmay have drawn less suspicion. It didn’t take her long to realize that she had lefther phone on the back counter beside the radio. She could picture it ringing in theempty station. Who had called her? Her father, maybe, would have called by now. Itwas past nine o’clock.
“What’s in Chicago?” Sheila asked when it was clear that she’d be doing most of thetalking on this trip.
Peter exhaled slowly. He smiled. He said, “We make it up. Is that worth anything toyou?”
Sheila thought about it for a minute.
“Yes,” she said.
They drove. They drove through the night and through the state. It was pitch blackand they were about fifteen miles shy of the Illinois border when Peter slowed thecar along the road’s shoulder. Half settled in a ditch there was a car, or part ofa car, smoke pouring from where the engine would be. Peter turned off his lights andpulled up just behind it.
“An accident?” Sheila said.
It was obviously an accident, and a serious one, but Peter said nothing. Pieces ofthe car were scattered between the taxi and the white line of the road. Peter gotout of the taxi and closed the door behind him. Sheila watched as he walked up tothe driver’s side door of the car. It took some effort to force it open, but he usedhis body as a counterweight. He dropped to his knees at the spot where the door fellopen. Peter knelt on the shoulder of the road and started to rock his body back andforth.
Sheila ran from the passenger side of the taxi. She didn’t want to see what Peterwas seeing, but she felt her body move toward the spot independent of any will ofher own.
An SUV whizzed feet away from Peter’s knees on the white line of the road. The vehiclepulled off to the shoulder a little further up, and a man emerged from the driver’sside.
Peter just looked at her. “I failed,” he said.
“Failed what?” she yelled. The passing traffic on the other side of the median madeit hard to hear. “Failed who?”
She saw them then, the people in the car. It was impossible not to see them then.There were two of them, girls, a little older than Sheila, driving home from collegefor the weekend, she imagined, their bodies now slumped against the dash. One of themhad red hair. One of them was wearing a thin silver chain that ended in a locket nearher chest. The one who had been driving had a gash on her cheek.
“They’re dead?” Sheila whispered.
The man from the SUV caught up to them now and stood on the other side of Peter. “I’ma doctor,” the man said, like someone on television.
Peter shook his head. “We’re too late.”
The man leaned into the car and reached for each girl’s wrist. A moment later theambulance pulled up and the paramedics and police took over. Sheila and the man whosaid he was a doctor stood to the side of the car, and Peter took a few steps backtoward the taxi. The paramedics asked what they had seen, but what could they say?They had seen nothing. They could do nothing. They had come upon the car just momentsbefore the ambulance had arrived. They shook their heads, and the police thanked themfor stopping and asked them to be on their way. Then, too quickly it seemed, Sheilaand Peter were back in the taxi, the drone of the road beneath them, the steady peltingof insects on the windshield, like nothing at all had happened, and this felt notright, that two girls were dead on the side of the road now, but that she and Petercould just keep driving, the highway under them impartial and unchanged.
“I feel sick,” Sheila said.
Peter stared straight out the windshield. His eyes were wet.
“Hey,” Sheila said. “Are you all right?”
“There’s nothing we could have done,” she said.
He shrugged. He opened his mouth but his voice shook. He tried again. “That’s whatI’m tired of.”
Peter blinked. He said nothing.
But this was something Sheila could understand. There was the way things should beand then there was the way things were, and the two rarely seemed to overlap. Peter’shand was on the gearshift and before she had given thought to what she was doing,Sheila placed her hand on top of his. She was driving away from her home with a stranger,away from her family and everything she knew. She was driving past mile markers, awayfrom cornfields, cows, from roadside debris, from the mangled bodies of two girlswho, half an hour before, like Sheila, were still making plans. She squeezed Peter’shand in that moment without knowing why, but feeling the uneven jitter of the roadthrough his hand cradling the gearshift, Sheila felt grateful—that his hand was there,that she had thought to take it.
After four and a half hours, the skyscrapers could be detected, but only in the distance.The landscape looked as much a certifiable city as anything Sheila had ever seen.You couldn’t see much of the buildings in the dark, but Sheila could see enough tobe impressed by their height alone. Peter merged with the lanes of traffic headedinto the city, and pulled off the expressway at Western Avenue. This was the longeststreet in the country, he told her, and they were heading north on it when suddenlyhe parallel parked the taxi and said, “We’ll hail a local cab from here.”
In the glove box, Peter retrieved an envelope full of his fares, unrecorded—a sumthat nearly matched the Sinclair register count. Just after crossing the Mississippi,they had pulled over at a rest stop to scrape the company decals off the car doors.He had by that point already smashed the CB radio on the side of the road with thesole of his boot and thrown his own cell phone in the Mississippi as they drove overit. Sheila had gasped, “Why did you do that?” Peter shrugged. “I don’t want to talkto anyone else,” he said. Her phone in the station, his in the river. They were actingrecklessly. They were cutting themselves off from the rest of the world. But therewas a strange calm in it, a promise implicit in the risk.WELCOME TO THE PRAIRIE STATE! LAND OF LINCOLN!the signs in the grass by the bathroom had shouted. Now Peter unscrewed the licenseplates and grabbed the laminated sign off the dash—so aside from being the wrong coloryellow, the wrong make and model of car to blend in with Chicago taxis, with the wrongtype ofFOR HIRElight affixed to the roof, and parked on a busy street through several rush hours,the taxi fit right in.
A Chicago cab drove them to a hotel. Peter carried the duffle bag full of money.
“Have a seat,” he told her.
Sheila sat in the lobby while he checked in. It wasn’t really that much money. Sheilahad more saved in the bank than what they had stolen.
“What if we get caught?” Sheila asked.
“You can say you got kidnapped. If you wanted to bail on me.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Sheila.
“I’m glad,” said Peter.
“I’m not a kid,” said Sheila.
“It’s late,” he said. “Let’s get something to eat.”
For dinner they ate hamburgers at a diner around the corner. Peter wasn’t much ofan eater, but Sheila was starving. She finished her meal and most of his french fries.
Sheila moved his plate closer to hers on the table, so she could easily sop up theketchup on her plate with his discarded scraps. She said, “Is this your first timeon a trip like this?” She was trying to gauge exactly what kind of trip this was goingto be. The truth was she had never really been on a trip, and she wanted to figureout how things were going to work.
Peter looked up. “Oh no,” he said. He shook his head. “I’ve been all over the place.I’ve been to Lincoln, Nebraska. I’ve been to Nashville, Tennessee.”
“When did you go to all those places?” Sheila asked.
Peter said. “I’m twenty-six years old. I’ve been a few places.”
“But never Chicago.”
“My first time,” Peter said. He smiled hugely without showing his teeth. He had beenfingering a book of matches, as if getting ready to light one. Of course, the dinerwas nonsmoking, and though his cigarettes were nowhere in sight, each time he cameclose to snapping one of the matches between his fingers to ignite it, Sheila feltnervous. Finally he set the matches on the table and looked up at her. “You too, Iguess?”
“What? Oh yeah.” Sheila hadn’t really wanted to admit that aside from family campingtrips it was her first time away from home, but Peter seemed edgy; she wanted to offerhim something, to set him at ease. “It’s my first time staying in a hotel,” she said.
Peter whistled. “Wow, I guess I should have checked us into somewhere nicer, triedto impress you a little bit.”
“Oh, I don’t know. It seems real nice,” Sheila said.
“There’s cable TV,” he said. “I guess that’s something. There’s a continental breakfast.”
“There’s a pool,” Sheila said. She had seen tile arrows pointing around the lobby,smelled the certain stench of chlorine.
“Hey, there is a pool, isn’t there?” Peter brightened for a second. “I say first thingwe do when we get back is dive in.”
“Deal,” said Sheila, and they smiled at one another across the booth, carefully, politely.Sheila noticed then that his foot had brushed up against her leg under the table.She wasn’t sure if he noticed or not, but she left her leg where it was. It was onlylater, when they were walking back to the hotel, that it occurred to her that theyhadn’t packed swimsuits. That they hadn’t packed anything. It wasn’t going to be thatkind of a trip.
She stopped on the sidewalk and turned to him. “What are we doing here?” she asked.
Peter took her hand. He said, “You know, don’t you?” He was looking at her so seriously,it seemed to Sheila that no one had ever taken her so seriously in her life. He said,“Isn’t that why you asked me to point the gun at you?” He seemed then as scared asshe was. It was true that she had asked him to do this, but it was at his suggestion,and anyway, she thought he would direct things from there. Sheila considered the possibilitythat this was how all such arrangements began when there was the irrational questionof desire hanging around in the corners of every half-thought. It came down to this:a series of actions, a series of reactions. He would say something, and then she wouldsay something, then there would be time to interpret, to analyze, before acting again.She thought of hearts beating under floors, hearts inside drawers. It was no wonderthere were so many casualties. But the important thing now was to keep reacting. Theimportant thing now was not to stop.
She had never shared a bed with anyone before. Even in her parents’ house, she andAndrea always had their own rooms. When they got back to the hotel Peter fell asleepstill in his clothes, on top of the covers. Sheila tried not to be disappointed; shehad been hoping for more attention. Sheila tried to sleep, but she could feel hisweight next to her. She watched him while he slept, as if she might miss somethingif she dozed off. Peter was on his back, stray strands of hair over his eyes. Sheilacautiously pushed one of the strands behind his ear with the tips of her fingers.He blinked, opened his eyes. He smiled at her and closed them. When his breathingsteadied again, Sheila began playing with the buttons of his shirt, and before she’dreally considered what she was going to do once his buttons were unfastened, she foundshe was pressing on them, silently encouraging each one to fit through its littleneighboring slot. She had wanted to get a good look at him. Under his shirt, Peterwas wearing a ribbed sleeveless undershirt, the same kind Donny wore around the house,but Peter’s shoulders were thinner and darker, like a boy’s.
“Hey, go to sleep,” he said with his eyes closed.
“I can’t sleep,” Sheila said.
“You should try.”
Sheila licked her lips. She traced the lines of his undershirt with her thumb. Petergave a little grunt after a minute and lifted her up on top of him.
“Hmm?” he asked, although she hadn’t said anything.
Immediately she felt panicked and exhilarated. There was nothing to say, so she kissedhis eyebrow quietly, in a spot where there was a little white scar, a small responseto his odd question. In reply, he pulled her face down to his and kissed her mouth.The other boys she had kissed didn’t kiss so hard. Peter gripped her face betweenhis hands when he pushed his tongue into her mouth. He pulled her face away from hisand eyed her with a quiet reprimand. “You don’t look a day older than sixteen,” hesaid.
Men took her for an early twenty-something all the time, but Peter didn’t seem tocare what her answer was to this charge, because suddenly he became very awake, hishands moving quickly under her clothes. She had his attention, and now she was goingto have to figure out what do with it. She had heard the men who sat in a line atthe bar she went to with her sister say to one another that there were two types ofwomen in the world: flirts and cock-teases. When the girls walked away from the barwith the words ironed into the asses of their sweatpants, the men decided which categoryeach fell into.Flirt?they asked one another.Nope, definitely a cock-tease. Sheila had wanted to ask someone, but didn’t: Which one was better? And: Weren’tthey kind of the same thing? But she wasn’t stupid enough to say this kind of thingaloud. She understood that only a girl would get hung up on such distinctions. Sheran her hand along the place where Peter’s belt fastened shut, understanding thatonce she got him out of the jeans, she had no idea what to do with what she was sureto find there. But Peter stood abruptly before she could do anything else. He said,“Are you sure about this?” and Sheila nodded.
“Okay,” he said. He kissed her neck and grabbed his wallet from the dresser. “Backin a minute.”
The door slammed and she was alone in the room. She flopped back on the bed and studieda crack in the ceiling. Back in a minute? Hadn’t that been the contents of the noteshe left on the locked door of the gas station after she turned off the pumps? Hadshe done something wrong? Should she take off her shirt or something while she waswaiting? Sheila scooted to the end of the bed so she could see herself in the mirrorabove the dresser. She pulled her hair out of its ponytail and peeled her shirt overher head. “Hi,” she said to the girl in the mirror, but then she felt ridiculous forsaying anything to that idiot in her underwear. She was still sitting there tryingto decide if she should put her shirt back on when the door swung open again. Peterwalked to her quickly, placed his hand in the crevice of her side above her jeansand kissed her. In his hand there was a small yellow box. Already Peter was removingthe rest of her clothes; he was waiting for her to reciprocate. “Will you put it onme?” he asked, pushing the box into her hand.
Sheila willed herself to finish what she’d started. Don’t be a baby, she told herself.Don’t be a flirt. She fit her hand under the buckle of his belt and unfastened it.She ripped the packaging away from one of the condoms, and she was holding it up tohim when Peter pushed forward so that he was already in her hand. Peter pulled therest of her clothes off, and he looked a little like he was going to cry. At firstit didn’t feel like anything, then it sort of felt like something, but she was afraidit was not the right thing, and then she realized she wouldn’t even know if it wasthe right thing. She thought of asking him what it was supposed to feel like, butwhen she looked up at him, it was clear he was feeling something, the way he was pullingher thighs closer to him and gasping for breath like someone coming up for air fromunderwater. The smell of latex stung in her nostrils. Andrea had advised her thateven if she didn’t like it the first time—and eventually, she would like it—she shouldmake a lot of noise, or the guy would think there was something wrong with her. Butevery time Sheila opened her mouth, Peter cupped his hand over it and smiled, askedher if she wanted to wake everyone up. Each time she opened her mouth to sound pleased—pleasedin the way one was supposed to sound while having sex for the first time with anotherperson—Sheila had to focus to be sure her mouth produced a moan instead of a question.The question her mouth was trying to form still wasn’t entirely clear to her, butit had something to do with the women who had been in the car on the shoulder of Interstate80. She looked down at her skin, her body beside his, below his, but alternately,in place of her own, she saw the girls’ narrow bodies, as they had been wrapped aroundthe steering wheel, the glove compartment. Then Peter started gasping again and hepulled away from her fast, closing his eyes, helpless to whatever it was that waspassing over him. Sheila breathed in and the air tasted sweet and she felt an oddcalm settling in her own body like a kind of quiet accomplishment.
She woke to the sound of him stumbling around the room looking for his clothes. Hehad already pulled his jeans on but his shirt was lost, somewhere under the sheets,under the other things in the room. Peter was on his hands and knees near the footof every piece of furniture, trying to keep quiet, and he looked so earnest in hissearch, she watched him for several more seconds, admiring his arms, his back, thebacks of his hands pressed out on the floor, before it occurred to Sheila that thereason that he was looking for his shirt was because he was going to leave. She bither bottom lip to stifle something rising. Of course this is why you were never supposedto have sex with someone on the first night; this is what the poets, with their falling-outhearts, always failed to consider. All the poets were men—those idiots!—and therewas something else that complicated it all to feel these same things as a woman, shewas remembering now, something mothers said about cows and the price of milk, butshe couldn’t recall if the girl was the cow or the milk or what, and anyway, whatwas the difference! Peter had found his shirt now and already he had his hand on thechain of the door.
“Wait!” She was sitting up in the bed now, the sheets tucked around her chest. Peterturned.
“What time is it?” Sheila asked. It was difficult to say with the shades drawn, butit didn’t matter. She needed to say something. She tried to stay confident, to staycalm, to ignore the red digits on the bedside clock and on the clock above the televisionacross the room that had already answered her question: 9:45A.M.
Peter retreated from the doorway and sat on the end of the bed. He looked at her cautiouslyas if she were a rabbit or a finch or something that had just appeared in the bedand addressed him in his own language.
“Hi,” he said. He inched closer slowly.
“Where are you going?” Sheila said.
“They take away the breakfast stuff in fifteen minutes,” he said. “I thought I’d tryto find us something to eat.”
She studied him to see if this was true.
He said, “I left you a note.”
She turned to the bedside table and held the piece of paper up to her face. It said:
Free breakfast ends at 10. I’m not sure what you usually eat in the morning so I willjust try to bring up a few of everything and you can pick what you like from it. Youlook pretty tired, I don’t think I should wake you up, but if you wake up in the next15 come meet me in the lobby kid.
She looked up from the hotel stationery and met his gaze. He was smiling at her, butonly with his eyes. Sheila leaned closer to the end of the bed, where he was waiting.She said, “Quit calling me kid.”
He leaned over her now, balancing on his forearms so that only the sheet was betweenthem. “What do you want me to call you?” he asked.
She looked at him. She wanted to say,What about that name that you called me last night when we left?But she was afraid to say it aloud, as if there were some spell, some understanding,some balance between them that she didn’t want to upset by talking away the mysteryof the thing.
Peter didn’t wait for her to say anything. He let his forearms drop and his weightrested on her. When she went to kiss him, she could feel him tense and relax againsther as if every muscle were concentrated on a reply, and when she asked him if itwould be okay if they just got breakfast somewhere else later, he didn’t bother respondinganyway and already he was working at her neck and her shoulders with his mouth.
That afternoon Peter went to see about a place for them to stay that wouldn’t cutas deeply into their funds. He knew of a guy in Humboldt Park who owned a building.Sheila was alone in the hotel for most of the afternoon. At three, she picked up apay phone and dialed her sister’s number. It rang five or six times and then Donnyanswered. Sheila hung up. She called back in an hour. This time Andrea answered rightaway.
“Andy, it’s me.”
“Jesus Christ, where are you?”
At the sound of her sister’s voice, Sheila faltered. She hadn’t counted on that. Shehad to catch her breath and speak slowly.
“I just wanted to let you know I’m okay.”
“Okay? Well, where are you?”
“I’m not close by,” said Sheila.
“Sheila, don’t fuck around. There’ll be a missing person report filed on you withthe cops by the end of the night. The Sinclair station’s all over the news. Dad’sabout had an ulcer.”
“I don’t want you to worry.”
“Tell me where you are.”
The thought occurred to her then to tell her sister that boysdon’talways like it when you make a lot of noise. Some boys cover your mouth in theirhands, she wanted to say to Andrea. Here, on the telephone, Sheila felt the strangeimpulse to confess to what she had done with Peter. Andrea’s voice on the other endof the line sounded more like home than she’d anticipated. She could hear the worry,the phone calls, the prayers, the neighbors’ casseroles, the police visits, the aimlesscar rides up and down the Coralville strip.
“It’s okay,” Andrea said. “You can tell me.”
Sheila swallowed. “I’m,” she said. Like that, the entire thing could be over. Peterhad given her an out.You could say you were kidnapped if you wanted to bail on me. She was terrified for an instant then, and she wanted her sister to tell her itwas okay. And here Andrea was making it easy for her. But she hadn’t been kidnapped.She had asked Peter to take her with him. Don’t be a baby, she thought. Don’t be aflirt.
“Honey, where are you?” Andrea said again.
Maybe that was the difference between a flirt and cock-tease, Sheila thought then.A flirt was a woman who moved between this and that without any real sense of direction,of decision. A cock-tease pretended she knew what she wanted. She put her hand firmlyaround the thing and said, this is it, but then she got scared and faltered; she gotscared and ran away from what she had started.
“I’m not in Iowa,” Sheila said into the telephone. She fit the phone neatly back intoits cradle, and promised herself she would call back soon, as soon as she figuredout what she was going to do.
Sheila went for a walk. She found a diner at the other end of the street where shebought herself a slice of pizza for an early dinner. An Italian man with a recedinghairline worked the register. She ordered a slice with sausage and green peppers.
“American girls,allora!” he said. “Chicago girls! They are never afraid of a little sausage, no?”
“No,” said Sheila.
“And I can see that you practice sports,” he said. “Tell me, which sport do you practice?”
“I don’t practice sports,” said Sheila, fitting her tongue around his awkward Englishin reply.
“But you are so thin!” exclaimed the cashier.
In Iowa, it was easy to cut male advances short. Sheila had learned a couple of handyphrases: “Please go piss up a rope,” and “I don’t trust you any farther than I couldspit you.” She could immediately see that such phrases were not useful here. She hadstarted learning idioms in her French workbook, and that’s exactly what her littlephrases were. The further you moved from home the less sense they made. It was goodthat she was not going to France. Just how had she expected to communicate! Sheilafumbled nervously with her wallet to pay the Italian, counting out her spare changeas quickly as possible. She thought of Ned with his piles of pennies, and she felt,suddenly, that she had somehow betrayed him.
She found a small convenience store in a strip mall on the same block as their hotel.The little plaza was tucked beyond the sidewalk on Clybourn Avenue. The Sinclair stationhad been surrounded by similar architecture. There were few stores that survived asself-contained structures even in Iowa. But here, there wasn’t the land between them.The space felt cramped, threatening to spill over, barricaded as it was by rows ofmetered parking on either side of the moving lanes of traffic.
Sheila walked in and asked the boy behind the counter for a pack of Peter’s cigarettes.“I said straights,” said Sheila, when the boy pulled down filtered, and Sheila sawhow it would be to be Peter, having to repeat that same thing all the time. It wasonly when the boy—who was clearly younger than Sheila by a few years at least—askedfor her ID, that Sheila noticed that the name on her driver’s license was different.Her smiling picture was the same. Under the picture it said her name was GwendolynStacy.
When Sheila returned home that evening, Peter was asleep on the bed. It was just startingto get dark in the room. She threw her purse down and sat on the foot of the bed.She had come home with the ID clutched in her hand, ready to confront him. Now sheonly watched him. Peter slept like a child, deeply, oblivious to her presence, asif he expended so much energy during the day that once a certain hour hit he had nochoice but to give himself over to sleep. Sometimes his breathing went syncopated,worrying over some uneven thread of a dream she imagined. Sheila looked from Peterto the driver’s license in her hand. Whoever had done it had done an expert job. Itwas nothing like the fake IDs she had seen at her high school. The name GwendolynStacy was so seamlessly merged with her personal data: eye color, hair color, height,weight, etc., it looked like it would be difficult for an authority figure to question.She felt a twitching in the muscles of her stomach as the thought took root that maybePeter had nothing to do with the ID. It was too good to be a fake. “Baby,” Peter askedfrom the other side of the bed. “Is that you?”
“I’m here,” Sheila said, shifting her weight closer to him. Then she pulled off herclothes, fit her body in the crook of his arm, and went to sleep beside him.
In the morning, Sheila woke to the sound of pages rustling by her head. Peter wasflipping through the brochures that were kept in the drawer of the nightstand.Chicago’s Most Popular River Cruise, said one. Another said,Experience the Adventure of Navy Pier!
“A river cruise?” said Sheila. She wrinkled her nose. “What’s this?”
“Just an idea,” said Peter. “I thought we might do something like this today.”
“Isn’t that kind of a tourist thing?” asked Sheila.
Peter shrugged. “We’re not from here. We’re like tourists.”
“I guess,” said Sheila, but she didn’t like considering herself as such. In Iowa,there was a distinct delineation between those who lived in the town year-round andthose who filtered in and out by semester schedules to attend the college. These boarders,renters and deserters, were treated not exactly with disdain, but there was a generalsense that they were temporary fixtures—bathmats, hairpins—evaporated from town beforeyou bothered to learn their names.
The river cruise was an architecture tour, winding by some of the city’s most significantbuildings, and the boat held fifty people in plastic folding chairs on its deck. Theirguide was a lifelong Chicago resident with a hot pink visor and a megaphone. She lookedto be about seventy-five, and though very knowledgeable about the city’s architecturalhistory, she seemed most eager to dispense information about ordinances ruling landon both sides of the river public property, owned by the city. When coasting by luxurycondos, the guide would assert, “Bring a picnic back to the yard here if you like—thisis public property!” or “The employees that work in this building never use theirriverfront property. But you can—this is city-owned, anyone’s free to use it!”
It seemed strange to be so emphatic, the small swaths of riverfront grass being leastexciting beside all the stainless steel edifices rising up from either side of theriverbank like giant dominoes. But Peter was similarly taken with the idea.
“Did you hear that?” he whispered excitedly to her. “Public land.”
Sheila smiled, but she said nothing.
Peter slipped his hand into hers. “We could come back at night with a blanket. Lookat the stars.”
They had just driven three hundred miles away from a place where open land was everywhereand the night sky was so pockmarked by light, you could read by its glow. “We’re inthe middle of the city,” Sheila said. “There are no stars.”
“Shhh,” Peter said, and he covered her mouth in his hand again, as if he didn’t wantthe others to hear her pronouncement. “Come on,” he said. He removed his hand fromher mouth and brushed her bangs off to the side of her face. It was difficult to saywhether he was joking or he was suggesting that the stars were the same here as anywhere,and it was she who needed to make an effort.
The tour guide carried on with her megaphone as the boat snaked along the river.Public land this! Mies van der Rohe that!Sheila had stopped listening, but Peter nodded along to the tour guide’s recommendationsas if they were essential, necessary for their shared survival. Sheila decided thenshe would do what he asked of her. She would feign sight of entire constellationsif that much were necessary.
But in the middle of the night, her mind began to race again. She could choose whatto believe, but she wanted more information on which to base her choices. While Peterslept, Sheila tiptoed from the bed beside him and silently pulled his duffle bag intothe bathroom. The gun was on top, and she pulled it out and placed it in her own purse.It felt lighter in her hand than she thought a gun would feel. It made little differencein the weight of her purse. Sheila stuck her hand back into the duffle bag. In hiswallet, she found the ID that said his name was Peter Parker. Behind it, she thoughtshe would find her own ID, but in its place were two old laminated cards belongingto two men who looked vaguely like the man she was sharing a bed with. In both ofthe laminated cards, the names had been gouged out through the plastic, rendered illegible.
There was a knock on the bathroom door.
Sheila flung the door open and held up the handful of IDs. “What the hell is goingon?” she asked.
“Oh, I wanted it to be a surprise,” he said. He sounded disappointed. “Look in yourown wallet.”
“I already did.”
“Did you notice anything?” he smiled.
“You changed my name.”
Peter shook his head, as if this part had nothing to do with him. “I changed yourage so we won’t always have to stay in at night. You can’t get away with flirtingwith the bartender here like you did in Iowa.” He smiled. “They don’t even let youthrough the door if you’re underage.”
“Thanks,” she said slowly.
Peter kissed her on the cheek. He smoothed her hair behind her ear.
“I really like you,” he said.
Sheila took a few steps back into the bathroom, her stance softening. “You do?”
“Of course,” Peter said. “Why do you think I asked you to come with me?”
“Actually, that hasn’t been made entirely clear to me,” Sheila said.
Peter advanced into the bathroom, and Sheila could feel his reflection in the bathroommirror moving closer as Peter moved closer. She felt surrounded. He said, “When Isaw you in the station, I felt like I already knew you. I felt close to you instantly,like we had already met somewhere else, somewhere in the past that I couldn’t quiteplace. Like you reminded me of someone I had already known, but had lost.”
“Gwen Stacy,” said Sheila.
Peter looked at the floor. “Is that okay? Does that bother you?”
Sheila said, “I haven’t decided yet. I mean, she’s a character from a comic book,not a real person. You get that, right?”
“Of course,” Peter said, “but understand, I’ve been waiting my entire life for someonelike her to show up. And you remind me of her. Or, in some way you are her and I knowyou’re meant to be here with me. Now if that scares you, I’m sorry, and I don’t wantyou to stay if you don’t feel the same. But maybe we could spend a little more timetogether and, I don’t know, see how it goes.”
Oh my God, Sheila thought, he’s fucking crazy. I’m sleeping with a crazy person. Butshe wasn’t scared. She was scared when she wasn’t with him, when she felt like shehad to investigate and assemble clues on her own. When he spoke to her like this,she felt exhilarated, like maybe she actuallywasGwen Stacy, maybe this was why nothing else in her life had ever felt like the rightthing, because the right thing was to be here with Peter.
Sheila looked him in the eye. “I’m not scared,” she said.
Peter kissed her other cheek, the one he hadn’t kissed before. The gesture felt calculatedfor a moment, like he was trying to balance something obscure though this small signof affection, but Sheila let it go and decided to be thankful for the symmetry. Itwas all a matter of deciding how to interpret information, she told herself. “I’mreal glad to hear you say that,” she heard him say then. He said this quietly, andagain Sheila nodded. “It means a lot to me,” Peter said.
“I’m not scared,” Sheila repeated. “We’re doing the right thing.”
Peter smiled. “I knew it,” he said. “I knew I was right about you.”
Then he started to pull at the buttons on his pants, as if to use the bathroom.
The following night they used Sheila’s new ID in the hotel bar. The bartender didn’tlook at her name oddly, as she expected he would. He glanced at it through the plasticsleeve of her wallet and said, “What are you having?”
“Vodka tonic,” said Sheila cautiously.
Peter ordered a beer and they found a table in the corner. He announced that theywere going to run out of money, which Sheila had already figured. They had only beenthere for three days, but living exclusively on the stolen money wasn’t a sustainableplan. Sheila understood if it ever came down to an emergency, she had money savedin her bank, the money she had been saving for France. But she didn’t want to touchthat. She didn’t want her bank tracing her location after a transaction; besides,that money had nothing to do with this.
“If you want to stay here, we’ll have to start looking for new jobs,” he said. “Doyou want to stay in Chicago?”
She thought she did. She knew she wanted to be where he was. But what she had beencraving was a plan, a ready-made plan that she could latch onto and live inside of,and the more time she spent with Peter, the clearer it became that there didn’t seemto be any semblance of a plan at all. Aside from the river cruise, she hadn’t seenmore than two blocks in either direction of their hotel. She was giving her fatheran ulcer.
“Who are the men whose IDs you have in your wallet?” she asked.
Peter nodded, as if confirming the question was a fair one. He said, “They’re brothers.”
“Are they real, or made up?”
“No, they’re real.”
“Who are they?”
“Me and my dead brother,” he said. “Jake.”
“I didn’t mean . . . um,” she trailed off. “Sorry.”
“Well, what for? He died years ago.”
“You miss him?”
“He was much older than me. He died when I was a kid and left me all his comic books.”
“Well, then which one are you?” asked Sheila.
“If I had to pick one, I guess I’d be the original,” Peter said. He was smiling thatgoofy, half-crazed smile he sometimes had. “Lee and Ditko’s, back when the mechanicalweb-shooters were designed by hand. None of this bullshit inflation with organic spinnerets—I’mjust not interested in that.”
Sheila stared. Two thoughts came to her at once, quickly, and settled uncomfortablyin her chest. The first was that the supposedly hard and fast rules by which the regularworld functioned were actually blurry, irregular, like the borders between state lines,how it was difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when one territory became anotherif you weren’t on the strip of the Interstate that marked the transition with a welcomesign. That the logic she had thought governed the world of adults was a hazy thing,no more certain than the lies they told to children. But the second thought came justas quickly: anyone could play this game. Sheila narrowed her eyes. “I mean, whichbrother are you?”
“The younger one,” he said. “The baby.”
“What’s your real name?”
“What’s the difference?”
“But Peter isn’t your real name.”
He looked at her hard. “Nobody reads comic books anymore,” he said. “So it might aswell be.”
Sheila looked Peter in the eye and reached out across the table. She gripped his chinbetween her two fingers, and held him there. She dropped her voice and spoke low.“Lots of people read comic books still,” said Sheila. She knew this to be true, andshe would stand by it. There were readers everywhere; there were movies being madeall the time. What right did Peter have to single-handedly commandeer the story? Hewasn’t doing it without her input. She tightened her grip on his face, held it still,and his mouth—half-opened as if in reply—sat mute by her hand, waiting.
Sheila let go of his face and put her hand back around the glass of ice that heldher drink. She tipped back the glass and felt the last of the vodka coat the insideof her mouth. She placed the glass down on the table, and allowed her eyes to meetPeter’s. At first he just stared. He ran his own hand over his chin, as if tracingthe impression she had left. “Okay, sweetheart,” he said softly, “you’re right. Lotsof people read them.” But still he didn’t look away, and she didn’t look away, andin that lapse something shifted, as if the empty space between them were growing angles,edges, something sharp enough to reach out and grab and form into what you wanted.
“New rule, starting now,” said Sheila, and Peter nodded. “No more calling mekid, no moresweetheart, no moreSheila. You call me my name as it’s printed on my ID, and I’ll do the same for you. Deal?”
He looked at her uneasily for a second. “Okay,” he said.
“Say it,” she said.
“I said we have a deal,” he said.
She shook her head. “I want to hear you say my name.”
“Gwen,” he said. “We have a deal.”
Sheila smiled. Under the table, she slipped her hand onto his knee.
His friend in Humboldt Park had said that they could crash in the loft for a few weeks,no more than that, or they’d need them to help make rent. Technically, she and Peterwere fugitives. Sheila knew this, of course. But they had started to depend on eachother. It was thrilling, and in a way, everything changed when they were in the apartmenttogether. She felt less like a runaway and more like his girlfriend. She had neverbeen anyone’s girlfriend. Peter draped his arm over her shoulders as they walked downthe street together, like he wanted to protect her, to be on both sides of her atonce. But he was helpless too. Sleeping beside her, he would call her name and askher for things, and it made her feel powerful, so she understood that he wanted herto protect him as well. This was part of the deal.
Sheila met a pretty Czech girl named Iva who lived downstairs and had also recentlyleft her home. She cleaned houses with a group of women, all from different places.Iva came upstairs to introduce herself one of the first nights, and Sheila took toher right away. Iva was a somewhat recent immigrant to Chicago, with a passable—butfar from perfect—command of the English language, and Sheila instantly saw an allyin her. She went and knocked on Iva’s door the following night, when Peter wasn’taround, and asked her for a job.
Iva looked at her carefully. “You want to clean houses?” She seemed incredulous atfirst. “The work is hard. Floors we clean on our knees, you understand this.”
“I get it,” Sheila said. “I know how to clean.”
“The bathroom in your apartment,” Iva said. “I saw it yesterday. It is not so clean.”
“We just moved in,” Sheila assured her. “I haven’t had the chance.”
Iva stared at her for another second, then disappeared into her own bathroom. Shecame back with a bottle of bleach and a sponge. “We try it?” she asked. “A test.”
Sheila took the bottle of bleach and the sponge from Iva, and before both women walkedup the narrow stairs to Sheila’s apartment, Iva opened her fridge and grabbed twobottles of beer to take upstairs with them.
Iva opened one beer and looked in Sheila’s cabinets for a glass, but there weren’tany there. She looked confused for a second but let it go without saying anything.Then Iva took a sip from the long neck of her beer bottle, licked her lips, and saton the closed lid of the toilet while Sheila got on her hands and knees and did herbest with the bleach and the sponge in one of the blackened corners. Iva opened thesecond beer and smiled as she set it on the edge of the bathtub for Sheila.
“You are too young for him,” Iva said.
Sheila, scrubbing at the tiles, felt her face get hot. She looked up at Iva. “I’mnot as young as I look,” she said. But she could feel the color in her face and wassure that just then she looked even younger.
Iva smiled. “He knows how many years you have?”
Sheila nodded. She pushed a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She continued scrubbing.
She had been ready to say twenty-one, but as she turned and sat on the tub to takea sip from the beer that Iva had offered her, she felt here was an opportunity tospeak the truth and see how it sounded. The possibility was liberating. It was thesame with her name. After demanding that Peter call her Gwen, she had introduced herselfas Sheila to Iva without thinking twice. It felt good to be able to control this,to exercise authority over when she was one thing, and when she was another. “Seventeen,”Sheila said. “I’ll be eighteen next week.”
Sheila was afraid that Iva would reprimand her, the way her sister might have, butshe could see right away that she would be rewarded for her honesty. Iva nodded. “Hehas a nice face, your boyfriend,” she said. “But he looks very sad, I think.”
It was the first time anyone had referred to Peter this way, and Sheila felt her heartknock things around in her chest. “He is too sad,” Sheila agreed. “I’m going to workon that.”
“Yes,” Iva said. “I imagine you will have success.” She reached out and touched theends of Sheila’s hair that hovered near the tile floor while she scrubbed. “Very pretty,”Iva said, “but you will need to tie it back to work.” Iva took a black rubber bandfrom her own wrist and offered it to Sheila.
Sheila nodded; obediently she fastened the band into her hair.
“I pay in cash,” Iva said finally. “The women whose houses we clean will leave thepayment in cash, and we share it.”
“That works for me,” Sheila said.
Iva smiled a little then in the corner of her mouth like of course she knew it worked,or she wouldn’t have mentioned it. Her smile remained couched in the corner of hermouth as if to say, I know you have something to hide, but you’re not alone in this.
Sheila started cleaning houses. No one talked to each other much except when articulatingthe full name of a cleaning product. “Clorox Bleach?” someone would shout from thebathroom down the stairs. “Murphy’s Oil Soap!” the girl in the kitchen would respond,and the two would meet halfway up the stairs and make the exchange. The houses theycleaned had many bathrooms on each floor. “A waste!” Sheila heard one woman say, asshe moved between bathrooms with a sponge. Sheila had never thought of the two bathroomsin her parents’ house as excessive; there was one on each floor. Now she could seehow little one needed to survive.
It didn’t take long to discover that Iva spoke French as well as English, and so sometimesSheila would speak with her in her own stunted French. “What age do you have?” theyasked each other over and over again, and each time Sheila answered honestly, it feltjust as good as it had the first time. “How does Chicago please you?” The way thatIva said the name of their city, Chicago sounded like the most exotic place in theworld. But of course, that was a trick of the tongue; that was the French, makingevery word in Sheila’s life sound like a huge soiree with lace tablecloths and pointyshoes, while her hands were wringing out a dirty sponge in some rich woman’s bathtub.
Peter had taken a job in a family restaurant, washing dishes. He was getting paidunder the table, and often returned with a small roll of bills to sort. His arms werealways pink when he came home, from all that hot water. The hairs on his arm werematted in every direction.
“You look like a haystack,” Sheila said to him, petting his arm.
“So do you,” said Peter. He didn’t take his eyes off hers, as if there were a wholemess of hay in her eyes, a maze or something.
There was a balding preacher on a post at the street corner near her home in Iowawho would yell at passersby on Saturday mornings about hay and eyes. “It’s easierto pass through the eye of a needle, than to find a needle in a haystack.” Or, “Lookhow you see a fleck of dust in your neighbor’s eye but not a haystack in your own.”Or something like that.
Sheila looked from Peter’s eyes to his arm and back again.
“Parker, you’re insane,” she said. She smiled and drew her hands around his neck,pulled him into her. “I’m sorry to say, you don’t make a bit of sense.”
“Of course it makes sense. It means we’re the same,” Peter said. He walked her towardthe window that looked over the park. “We’re good together.”
She leaned into him, offered him all her weight. Peter kissed her on the mouth. Hestarted to pull off her clothes. Sometimes they would go to the bed right away, butsometimes he wouldn’t let her touch him. He would remove her clothes slowly and stareand say things under his breath like, “Oh,” and “Oh, God.”
Other times, she would enter the apartment and find Peter staring off into space withthis blank look on his face, and when she approached him, he would brighten; he wouldn’ttake his eyes off her. He wound his arms around her tightly as they slept. She triedto ask him questions. But Peter didn’t like to talk about himself. She’d asked himhow his brother died:
“An overdose of something,” he’d said. “A little of this and a little of that.”
“On purpose, you mean?”
“Well that’s not the way it was explained to me at six, but yeah, on purpose. That’sone way of saying it.”
She’d asked him how long he’d lived in Iowa.
“Oh, a while,” he’d said. “Too long.”
Sheila walked to the other side of the apartment and poured herself a glass of water.The front room was large, but there were several small holes in the front window,the size of bullets.
“The neighborhood did not used to be so good as it is now,” Iva had cautioned.
There were rats in the alleys, with long pink tails. Of course, they only wanted toeat. Everyone’s garbage was heaped together in piles behind the apartment; who knewwhat one could find. The city of Chicago had put up signs in the alleys that said:TARGET, RATS! with a crude illustration of a rat electrocuted by a bolt of lightning. Did it meanthat traps were set? Or that tenants should consider setting such traps? The eyesof the rat in the illustration were exaggeratedly frozen, as if in shock, and it madeSheila wonder where all these rodents had come from, how all these animals had foundtheir way to the city in the first place.
Her coyote in Macbride Hall had likely never lived in Iowa like most of the animalsthere; it was either shot upon arrival in the Midwest, or it was a gift from scientistsin Nevada or California. It stared straight forward. Maybe they didn’t know how toarrange it, the limbs and everything. In the case at Macbride Hall, the coyote keptso still. None of its natural prey and predators were around; there was nothing tochase, nothing to run from. It was difficult to know one’s own body, surviving ina place outside of the natural, predetermined one. There was nothing obvious aboutwhat to fear; there was no expectation about what to desire.
In the bathroom that she shared with Peter, his razor sat on the shelf beside hersoap and what her mother would call herfeminine hygiene products. She remembered her mother encouraging her to wrap up the used applicators in toiletpaper before throwing them in the bathroom trashcan. “Men don’t want to see that kindof thing,” she’d advised. As if there were a constant stream of strange men visitingthe house rifling through the garbage for evidence of Sheila’s period! Now that shewas actually living with a strange man—or anyway, the only man she’d ever lived withsave her father—she took comfort in the sight of their bodies’ overlap: stray strandsof her hair stuck to his bar of soap in the shower, his used condoms mingling withher tampon packaging in the trash. The box of tampons boasted in three languages aboutthe everyday importance of enjoying being woman,Être une femme, c’est formidable . . . tous les jours!
Sitting on the toilet, she smiled into her thighs.
One night as they were lying in bed, a woman on the street was yelling up to one ofthe apartments nearby, “An accident, you Don Juan asshole? Is that right? I’ll showyou accident!” Sheila heard glass, presumably a windshield, shattering. She hearda man shouting in a language she didn’t understand. She heard sirens.
Peter wound his arms tightly around her in the bed like he wanted her to know shewas safe.
“You and your boyfriend maybe should be more quiet,” Iva advised one day as they knelton the floor of a kitchen, scrubbing side by side.
“Quiet how?” Sheila asked.
“Mmm,” Iva mimicked, “Oh, oh, oh.”
Sheila smiled and stuck up her middle finger, and then she went to squeeze her ragout in the laundry room sink. Iva followed. She put her head on Sheila’s shoulderas if to rest for a moment. “A joke,” she said quietly, in truce, in apology. “I knowyou have not many of them in this country, but it is only this.”
“At least I’m getting some,” Sheila said.
“Some what?” said Iva.
“It’s an expression,” said Sheila.
“What are you getting? Some sex? Yes, it is obvious because you are very loud.”
Sheila laughed. “Yeah,” she said. “You mentioned.”
Iva said, “I can say, ‘I am getting some,’ and it means I am getting some sex.”
“Also,” Sheila said, “you could ask, ‘Are you getting any?’”
“And it means the same?” Iva looked at her as if incredulous that such innocuous wordscould become so loaded in context. Sheila recognized this feeling from French. Putan accent mark in a different place or switch two letters around and you could thinkyou were talking about vegetables when in fact you were talking about genitalia.
“Have you been with a lot of guys?” Sheila asked.
Iva began to count off on her fingers. She didn’t get very far before she held herhands up, but it was still enough that she had to pause to count them.
“I’ve only ever been with Peter,” Sheila admitted.
Iva smiled, “Yes, I know.”
Both women squeezed their rags and went back to their knees in the kitchen.
“I am pleased for you,” Iva said from the other side of the dishwasher. “And the nexttime I get some, I will be sure you hear me get some.”
Sheila smiled into her sponge, “C’est formidable, mon ami.” At first, she couldn’tput her finger on what set her so much at ease being around Iva, until she rememberedthat it had been a long time since she had someone she might refer to as her friend.She thought of Anthony then, of the friend he had been to her in those first weeksof sharing their lunches in the Large Caf. She pictured him sitting alone now at theirlunch table. His eyes looked the same way they had when he walked away from her aftershe’d kissed him. She wished there had been some way to apologize to him. She wonderedif he had asked another girl to the dance. She wondered if the girl had said yes.
Would it be accurate to say that they willfully ignored the fact of their criminalstatus? They had been living in the apartment for nearly two weeks now. Their actionswere not something they acknowledged aloud. It was the way it had been with the name,the way he had used it the first night in the station, and it seemed to initiate thisunderstanding that she didn’t want to disrupt by talking the thing away. So too withtheir crime. Andrea had said the gas station was all over the news. And why wouldn’tit be? It was no small thing to rob a business and cross state lines in a stolen vehicle.But Peter and Sheila didn’t have a television or a radio and they made no effort toseek one out, at least for a time, as if to deny the possibility of danger, like childrenwho close their own eyes with the hope of not being seen.
But Sheila didn’t need to see the local news at night to sense the danger. She wasstarting to feel lingering glances cast in her direction, even the women with whomshe cleaned houses, save Iva, seemed to regard her with a slight sense of distance.It was difficult to say whether it was because she didn’t speak their language, orbecause she was a wanted criminal. After work that day Sheila stopped at the drugstore at the corner and bought, for herself, a box of hair bleach, lipstick, eye makeup,red nail polish and, for Peter, a pair of black plastic-framed eyeglasses and a pairof desk scissors—all for under forty dollars. She reasoned it was time to make aneffort to look less like themselves. When she knocked on Iva’s door with the box ofhair bleach, her friend immediately smiled. Sheila sat on the lip of the bathtub inIva’s bathroom, while Iva stood behind her in the mirror with plastic gloves on herhands, massaging the platinum dye into Sheila’s scalp.
“I always thought it would be fun to be a real blond,” Sheila explained innocently.
“Very beautiful,” Iva said. “Like American movie star.”
“Think Peter will be surprised?”
Iva stifled a smile. “I think you will get some.”
Sheila felt the impulse to reach for Iva’s hand, but because it was covered in theplastic glove, she reached for her wrist. Iva was funny in English; she was funnyin French. She didn’t take herself so seriously that she wouldn’t mind laughing ather own expense. But the times Sheila heard her friend speak in Czech, it filled herwith an incredible sadness that she couldn’t explain. To hear the speed and seemingforce with which Iva spoke to the other women, Sheila felt the Iva she knew was onlya shred of the real woman, what this woman must be like in her own language.
“Iva?” Sheila asked. “What are you doing here?”
A thought crossed Iva’s face quickly, as that other Iva, the version of her friendthat was more solemn, that had survived something. “A chance to begin again. The sameas you, no?” she said.
Sheila looked at the floor.
“Not important,” Iva said. She raised Sheila’s chin with her gloved hand, so thatboth women faced the mirror.
Sheila nodded. “Thank you, Iva,” she said.
“It is nothing,” Iva said.
When Peter arrived home from work that night, Sheila had already prepared dinner.She had applied a coat of nail polish and spent a good half an hour in the bathroommirror with the eye shadow and mascara and all the various accompanying brushes. Soakedin black paint, her eyelashes were longer than she could have imagined. Everythingabout her was exaggerated. She felt like the animated or Technicolor version of herself.Then she sat and waited for him at the table, waited for him to notice her.
It didn’t take long. The second he opened the door he took a step back.
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
Sheila turned. “You like it?”
He walked quickly to her. He reached out for her waist and pulled her to him. Sheilasmiled. She thought he was going to kiss her, but then he pulled her away just asquickly, his hands still on her waist.
“What the hell are you doing?” he said quietly. “Why are you doing this?”
“Doing what?” Sheila asked.
Peter eyed her with a look of reprimand.
“You look like her,” he said.
“Who?” Sheila said.
“Who,” Peter repeated, half a laugh. He gave her hair a little tug. He kissed herthen, but the kiss was rough and difficult. He wasn’t kissing Sheila; he was kissingthe other woman. “You’re going to drive me crazy,” he said simply.
“You started it,” said Sheila.
Peter nodded. “Yes,” he said.
“That’s not why I did it anyway,” Sheila said. “You know we need to disguise ourselves,our identities. Don’t pretend you don’t think about it.”
“About what?” he asked.
Sheila stared. “We broke the law, Peter,” she said. “We’re wanted criminals. Peopleare looking for us.” She went into her handbag and produced the black plastic glassesshe had purchased for him. She held them out. “I tried them on in the store. There’sno prescription. The lenses are a little scratched, but if you squint you can stillread and see enough of everything.”
“I don’t wear glasses,” he said.
“Well now you do,” she said. “Try them on.”
Obediently, Peter placed the eyeglasses on bridge of his nose.
Sheila nodded. “Good,” she said, reaching into the plastic bag to reveal the scissorsas well. “And after dinner we’ll see about your hair.”
Several nights later, Sheila woke up cold. First she noticed only that the sheet wasmissing, crumpled in a heap at the foot of the mattress, half on the floor. It wasas she sat up to retrieve the blanket that she noticed that Peter was not in theirbed. She heard a mumbling sound and saw the bathroom light was on; she stood up fromthe mattress to investigate only after fifteen minutes had passed and Peter had notreturned.
The first thing she identified was that the kitchen tap was left running. Sheila turnedoff the faucet and advanced toward the light in the bathroom. In the bathroom, thetap was also running. Beneath the sink, Peter was sitting on the bathroom floor witha glass of water in his hand. Between gulps from his glass he mumbled something underhis breath, something Sheila couldn’t make out. Once his glass was empty, he reachedto the running faucet and refilled it, then repeated the action. Sheila watched thiscontinue for several minutes before she crouched on the floor beside him and placedher hands on his shoulders.
“Peter,” she said.
At the sound of his name, he looked up at her, but his eyes were glossy and difficultto make contact with, like the eyes of an animal in pain or fear. She shook him againby the shoulders. “Peter,” she said again.
“Gwen,” he said now, as if relieved. He repeated her name several times, greedily,comforted at the sound.
“You were sleepwalking,” she said. “You were drinking water in your sleep.” She puther hand on his forehead like her mother used to do, feeling for fever.
Peter shook his head, embarrassed; he began to stand up from the bathroom tiles. “Iwas having a bad dream,” he said. “You were underwater and I couldn’t find you.”
Sheila smiled. She guided him back to their bed and pulled her arm tighter aroundhis torso, rubbed his back until she could hear his breathing steady and wander off,like she was the one who would take care of him now. That was the first night shehad found him up wandering the apartment.
But after three nights of turning off the kitchen tap, after three nights of findingPeter drinking from the bathroom tap and explaining how he was looking for her inthe water, she was frightened. She would wake up, first cold, then angry at him forwalking away from their bed, for doing strange things at night that he made no attemptto explain to her in the morning.
“What are you seeing?” she asked him.
“A lot of water,” he would say.
“And I’m in the water. Am I swimming?”
He’d say. “Come on. Let’s talk about something else.”
“Tell me,” she would beg on the third night.
“It’s a dream,” he’d say, “It doesn’t matter.”
“Stop it,” she would yell as she shook his shoulders on the fourth night. Peter lookedback at her with wet eyes. “I can’t,” he said, and the helplessness in his voice wouldbe what scared her more than anything.
The morning of her eighteenth birthday marked three weeks of their shared survivalas fugitives, but Sheila woke up thinking it couldn’t last much longer. She woke upearly enough to watch the first sunlight touch the floorboards through their curtain-lesswindows. Peter had been up again last night and now he slept beside her, deeply asalways. Sheila dressed slowly and let herself out the front door. She purchased acoffee from the café at the corner and crossed the street to Humboldt Park. The parkwas deceiving, more expansive than it seemed from the window of their apartment, andit was empty at this early hour and looked slightly more sinister than during fulldaylight. She walked by a boathouse and along a lagoon. She walked through a groveof crabapple trees, and out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of an animalwatching her, as if charting her movements, something fierce in gaze and sharp inbone structure, but when she turned again, she only saw a collie sniffing around plotsof perennial flowers. It happened several more times, this feeling of being watched,her progress through the park guarded by something wild, but always by the time sheturned on her heels to catch her pursuer, the park returned to a benign landscape.The truth was she was glad for the distraction. She walked for forty minutes, aimlesslyat first, then more purposefully, and tried with everything she took in not to thinkof her father this morning, not to think of him waking up for work on the date shewas born and brushing his teeth or tying his shoes or reading the newspaper.
Walking from the perimeter of the park, Sheila passed a payphone. She stopped andclutched the receiver in her hand. She thought that it would be enough only to holdit, but before long she was fishing around in her bag for spare change and dialing.She could picture the telephone on the nightstand beside her parents’ bed. Her fatherpicked up after a single ring.
“Hello?” he asked. His voice had the slow panic of interrupted sleep.
“Dad,” she said. And already she could hear every noise in the room, her mother shriekingin the background, her father covering the mouthpiece of the telephone and saying,“It’s her.”
It was her father who spoke first. “Sheila,” he said. “Your mother’s worried sick.”
“Dad,” she said again. “I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry for,” he said. His voice was strangely calm and steady. “Areyou safe? Did they hurt you?”
“I’m okay,” Sheila said. She could feel a sob building in her throat. “Dad, I haveto go.”
“Now wait a minute,” she heard him start, but she made herself put down the phonebefore she could hear the rest.
She told herself it was better to let them know she was okay, that she was safe, thannot to have called at all.
When she arrived back at the apartment, Peter was up and dressed. He looked at herslowly. She could see that her absence from the bed this early had worried him, butthis he was trying to disguise. “Have you eaten?” he asked.
“I thought I would take you to breakfast,” he said.
It was difficult to discern whether he understood the significance of the day, orif he just had a craving for an omelet. He was more delicate since the sleepwalkinghad started. It seemed like the smallest things she said, even in jest, could hurthim.
“I bet my parents are really worried about me,” Sheila said.
Peter nodded. “Maybe you should think about going home.”
Sheila felt her eyes fill. “I don’t want to,” she said.
“Okay,” Peter said. “You don’t have to.” He put his arms around her, dried her facewith his fingers. “You know I want you with me, but you do whatever you feel is right.You make the rules, okay?” Sheila nodded. He kissed her forehead. Then he said, “Waithere.” He retreated to the bedroom and returned with something stashed behind hisback.
“What’s this?” Sheila said.
Peter exaggerated the gesture of concealment and took a step forward.
Sheila tried pulling at each of his arms, but Peter wouldn’t reveal the object untilshe promised to sit down and close her eyes. Sheila complied, sitting on their bed,with her legs folded beneath her.
“Okay,” she said. “I’m ready.”
Peter said nothing, but she could hear him kneel on the ground, beside the electricaloutlet. Then she heard the sound of static and from it the Frenchwoman’s voice beganto speak.
“Je ne sais pas,” the Frenchwoman said.
“Je ne sais pas,” said Peter.
“Je ne sais quoi,” the Frenchwoman said.
“Je ne sais quoi,” said Peter.
Sheila kept her eyes closed for a moment and listened. She had left her CD playerin the gas station and hadn’t heard her lessons since. It was a level-one lesson andall he was doing was repeating, so the dialogue was nonsensical, but it didn’t reallymatter. Peter’s voice was soft and unsure of itself as he repeated after the Frenchwoman.When Sheila opened her eyes, Peter stopped the tape abruptly, as if suddenly shy.
“Do you like it?” he said.
Sheila felt something, like desire, rise in her gut. “Your accent needs a little work,to be honest,” she said.
Peter looked at the floor, but he smiled.
“Where did you get it?”
Peter leaned nervously over the tiny, black buttons, as if they were the teeth ofan animal. “A little pawn shop on Chicago Avenue,” he said. “They barely sell thesethings new anymore, so—” he trailed off. “Happy birthday, Gwen,” he said quietly,and he touched her face where her cheek met her chin.
Sheila stood beside him. With one hand she pressed the play button on the CD player,and with the other she took Peter’s hand and walked him back to the bed. They laystill, side by side. The Frenchwoman spoke; Sheila and Peter listened. The familiarrhythm of her voice filled the room like a mother’s, and Sheila felt content justto let the sound soak up around them without reacting to the words.
In the pauses between each French phrase, Sheila heard not Paris, but Iowa. She heardthe stillness of empty fields of quiet crops, of parking lots at night with only insectsmoving, the stillness of her parents’ kitchen in the long afternoon hours. Iowa wasthe last place she’d heard French like this. She understood then that she was notgoing to Paris. She had saved all her money to get as far as Chicago, and now shewas here, with Peter, working hard not to let the French make her miss the home itcalled to mind.
On the bed, Peter took her hand into his and squeezed it.
Sheila bit her lip to discourage a tremble.
“We’re going to make it. It’s working,” Peter said. He pressed his mouth to her temple.“Everything is going according to plan.”
And a part of her thought,What plan?But so what if the plan was hazy and unknowable in its entirety? An arrangement wasbeginning to form, rules they agreed on. She saw how he would take care of her, exceptfor when she took care of him, and how they would pool their money and work to eat,and this was one way to leave the place you’d known too long and make a go of it.This was what a plan looked like once you stopped obsessing over the culminationsand actually started to live inside it.
Yes, she wanted to say. She wanted to agree with this logic, to adopt it as her own.Instead she said, “I want to know where you go at night.”
“But I’m always right here,” said Peter, “beside you.”
“Take me with you,” she said. “In one of the dreams.”
Peter shook his head. “Don’t,” he said.
The Frenchwoman was still speaking, but she was background noise now. The names ofthe things she said had become irrelevant.
CHICAGO. IT SEEMEDunlikely that you could get to a place like it, another world entirely, after onlyfour hours in the car. There were parks and avenues stuffed with skyscrapers, therewas a lake that you’d have sworn was an ocean for its size and for the way the wavespulled themselves out onto the sidewalk. The city Peter had dreamed every night fora week retreated to the back office of his brain, to be replaced by the thing itself.It at first seemed purely speculative that people actually lived here, but he sawthem, all right: filling their cars with gas, walking their dogs. Those were the surefiresigns of residence—cars, dogs.
In the hotel, there were rules posted everywhere. By the pool:NO RUNNING. NO DIVING. NO HORSEPLAY. By the bar:NO ID, NO SERVICE. WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO ASK FOR IDENTIFICATION OF ANYONE WHO LOOKSTO BE UNDER35. Out front of the lobby:NO SMOKING WITHIN 15 FEET OF THE ENTRANCE. With every cigarette, Peter walked the requisite fifteen feet before rummaging inhis pocket for a match and even in this ridiculousness, he felt content to be abidingby the rules of this other place.
Later—near the apartment he’d secured for Gwen and himself—squirrels darted betweentrees with hedge apples, giant and unwieldy, stashed between their front teeth. Therehad been talk, all over the middle of the country, of wilder animals—coyotes, cougars—crossinginto the borders of cities and roaming the streets by night. Peter felt as if he hadreached a place where so many living things converged, he sometimes had to close hiseyes so as not to get overstimulated. He found an ad in the paper for a partiallyfurnished apartment in Humboldt Park, a weekly rental, and he’d told Gwen that a friendof his had hooked them up. He didn’t want her to know how much of their money wasgoing to the place. He had put down two weeks’ rent, because the landlord had beena bulky man who asked no questions and did not ask him to sign anything. It was aninvestment really, cheaper than the hotel room in the long run. Safer too.
When he walked Gwen into the apartment, she ran excitedly from the sink to the table,from the window’s view of the park to the mattress on the floor—you’d have thoughthe’d secured a penthouse suite. The apartment was borderline decrepit, sure to befull of cockroaches, but Gwen clearly was impressed, and in a way it endeared herfurther to him. At the time, watching her run through the near-empty room—touchingeverything, securing her arms around his neck—the stolen car and money, the gun andthe police seemed to exist in some other reality that had nothing to do with PeterParker, nothing to do with the woman he loved.
They had been living there two days when the Czech girl who lived below came up thestairs to introduce herself.
“You are from here?” she asked. Her name was Ivana—“Iva is for short.” She was likelyGwen’s age, but spoke with the low, throaty tenor of Slavic translation, which madeher seem older, more sage than both Gwen and himself.
“No,” Peter said. “We’re new to the area.”
Iva nodded. “Two years I have been here,” she said. “I can explain.”
Which made it sound to Peter as if she would explain her journey from Eastern Europe,how she came to live in the Midwest from the Old World sophistication of opera housesand finely fermented beers. But what she had come to explain was purely practicaladvice. She explained how the man who lived on the corner sold drugs, how they wouldhear the people waiting for him in the alley. She explained how at night they werenever to walk on the park side of the street, but to stay to the house side, wherethere were streetlamps, to avoid getting mugged.
“Sounds like a nice neighborhood,” Gwen said.
Iva said, “It did not used to be so good as it is now.”
Which Peter took to mean that the place could grow on you. He could see that.
“We heard animals last night,” Gwen said. “In the alley.”
“Rats,” Iva said. “Also”—here she paused, mimed the act of howling—“how do you saythis?”
“Wolves,” Peter said “Dogs.”
“Coyotes, she means,” said Gwen.
“Yes, this,” said Iva. “In the alleys, also sometimes in the park, you hear them.”
“But have you seen them?” Gwen asked.
Iva waved her hand dismissively at this, as if her expertise in such areas was beingchallenged, though Peter could see that it was only that Gwenwantedto see one. She was funny about things like that. Whenever they saw a dog being walkedon the opposite side of the street, Gwen would practically knock Peter down to coddlethe thing, to work her fingers into its coat.
“You are very patient,” he’d heard her confide plainly to a dog that was tetheredto a bike rack outside a bar once, while checking the dog’s tags for the proper namewith which to address it. “Toast,” she’d added before Peter pulled her from the groundwhere she knelt.
Iva continued, “They have to be removed.”
“Removed?” Gwen repeated.
“Sure,” said Peter. “Creatures like that could cause a lot of harm in the city. Theyeatdogs.”
“But they return,” said Iva. “If you want to see them”—she was talking to Gwen exclusivelynow—“you must go to the lake. There they travel in packs.”
He could see Gwen had not yet exhausted the topic, so Peter took the opportunity tostep outside for a cigarette. There was a rickety bit of porch on the side of thehouse, where if he strained his head, Peter could make out the dark expanse of thepark. He liked being close to so much land. He knew he had become distracted, thathe’d lost sight of his mission, but looking into the bulk of darkened shapes—barelyvisible suggestions of what was really out there—he had the distinct feeling thatthings were starting to come together.
How exactly to go about making things come together was unclear. It was his firstcalling—if it could be called that—or anyway, it was the first time he had chosento try to follow the sketchy details from a dream to try to effect a change, and sofar, so good, but now what? He had a weapon, which seemed important. But what exactlywas he meant to do with it? Toward whom was he to point it? Peter imagined breakingand entering into the bathrooms of the city’s loneliest men and making demands.Come out with your hands up or I’ll shoot!The entire proposition was absurd. In stories, those who hope to do harm call attentionto themselves. They kidnap public figures; they steal potent potions from scientificlabs and unleash monsters of their own creation on the general populace. But whatabout the small and quiet criminals who hope to make no noise in their work? How tosave someone from himself?
The first week in Chicago he had snuck away for an hour or two with the pretense oflooking for work, but instead, he wandered the city, looking for clues. He rode citybuses. He walked the perimeter of parks. He found several small scrap yards, and hespent the better part of a few afternoons wandering through the smashed up cars andpiles of trash. He saw nothing that resembled the isolated fragments from his dreams.The thought occurred to him that it was Gwen who would have to lead him. He had theforesight, yes, but she was there with him for a reason. He remembered the way shehad slapped him, straight out of the comics. He could do nothing but continue to lookfor overlaps, make meaning of coincidence, and encourage her to keep improvising untilthings started to resemble the stories he knew.
In the meantime, he washed dishes. He washed dishes in water so hot his arms stunglong after he’d removed them from the scalding basins. There were three sinks, a process:wash, rinse, sanitize. After sanitization, it was contrary to health codes to rinsea second time. He’d lift the dishes from their third bath still covered in suds—thefluids of sanitation—but under no circumstances was he to ever rinse this dish again,whatever he might think. This was explained to him by his supervisor at the Greekrestaurant, and explained again routinely by the prep cooks who chopped garlic anddestemmed spinach beside him.
“Peter, no good! No good!” they yelled.
Victor and Diego had worked their way up from dishwashing to kitchen prep, and assuch, they were willing to help Peter do the same, if he stuck around long enough.Of course, he would not stick around long enough. He was being paid cash under thetable; this way there was no need to hand over his social security number or personalinformation that might link him to the robbery of a gas station and a taxi three hundredmiles away. But already he was beginning to understand the constraints of the clandestineexistence he’d forged for Gwen and for himself.
Gwen had taken up Iva’s offer to clean houses with her, and she too would come homewith her hands cracked and brittle from so many cleaning products. Sometimes, he feltbad he had brought her here. She clearly could have done better for herself than squeezingthe water out of sponges all day. But Gwen insisted that this is where she wantedto be.
They had only lived together a few weeks, but already patterns were beginning to form,routines he began to expect and look forward to. Every night they made dinner. Peterdid the shopping. Gwen pulled the pan out from beneath the sink and threw whateverhe bought inside of it, closed the lid. After dinner they went for walks, long walks,in which Gwen wound her arm through Peter’s and they pointed out houses to one anotherwhere they might have lived in another life, if Chicago were their city, and not justthis place where they were. They walked along the thrift shops on Milwaukee Avenueand tried on clothes they sometimes bought. Peter had packed a change of clothes inhis duffle bag, but Gwen had come to Chicago with only the clothes on her back, soit was far from frivolous to use some of their shared funds to buy a new pair of jeansor T-shirt.
The last time they’d gone to the Salvation Army, Peter had run his hand along thematerial of a navy blue dress with buttons and a cloth belt. While Gwen sifted quicklythrough hangers in rows, Peter pushed the dress into her hands.
“What’s this?” she said.
“Try it on,” he said.
“I have nowhere to go in this.” Gwen held the dress up to her shoulders.
“You’re blushing,” Gwen said. “Give it to me.”
When Gwen pulled back the curtain of the fitting room, Peter paused for a moment beforehe stepped behind the curtain with her.
“Only one person allowed in the fitting rooms at a time,” a clerk called from thecounter.
“I’ll just be a second,” Peter said, but quietly for only Gwen to hear.
The dress was old-fashioned and it was cut for a woman with a bit more bust and hipto her, but it hardly mattered. Peter stepped closer to the dress and fixed the collarwhere it rose awkwardly in the back of Gwen’s neck.
“What’s the big idea?” she asked.
Peter reached for the rubber band that held back her ponytail and tugged twice tofree Gwen’s hair from it. He placed his hand at the small of her back and turned Gwentoward the mirror, so she could see herself, so she could see how in this dress shewas a spitting image of the Empire State University science major who would becomeSpider-Man’s first love.
“Put on the dress,” Peter would sometimes say at night, and Gwen would obliginglywalk out of her jeans in the bedroom and slip her arms through the fabric. Peter breatheddeeply into the material that covered her shoulder as he held her and felt that hewas breathing in so much that he had lost.
The way Spider-Man had clutched at Gwen Stacy’s body after she died, like there wasnothing he could do to make things right, Peter remembered. He remembered Jake curledin a heap in his childhood closet, his fingers twitching. He remembered his motherstaring off into the buttons of the microwave without touching a number to heat herdinner. Peter held Gwen in their bedroom in Chicago and breathed in the smell of herhair.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Gwen would say then, and she’d put the dress on a hanger andreturn it to their closet. And it was. Even seeing her in it for five minutes likethat was enough to conjure a world of loneliness and so affirm their reason for coming.
The truth was it had been easier than he would have ever imagined to coerce Gwen intothe car with him. It was as if she had been sitting there in the station, waitingfor him to show up. Peter had anticipated that the entire prospect would require someconvincing, and so he had planned to tell her everything—the nightmares, the comicbooks, the way his brother had died—but Gwen had asked him to point the gun at her.Gwen did most of the talking in the car. Gwen had removed his clothes, unprovoked,on the very first night they shared a room.
Peter had been with a few local girls in early adolescence, he had visited a prostitutemore recently; once, regrettably, he had slept with a fare in the back of his cab,but these had been quiet, efficient exchanges, the scripted trajectory from gropeto release that he had learned from movies along with everyone else. None of thishad prepared him in the least for the patient concentration of Gwen Stacy slowly unbuttoninghis shirt—as if not to wake him—while he pretended to sleep. Peter had understoodthat if he opened his eyes, Gwen would be there, inches from his face, the blond ponytailthat she favored hovering between them like an intermediary, ready to bargain. Hehad told himself that he wouldn’t touch the girl, though every hour of the drive he’dfelt increasingly prone to question this rationale; she was young, and, at the time,he wasn’t even sure how young—she was almost certainly lying to him about her age.But young, possibly a full ten years younger; seventeen, he feared, was not a badguess. When she had finished with the buttons, she started to trace lines in his skinwith her fingers. Peter cleared his throat. He fought the impulse to open his eyes.He’d said, “Gwen, go to sleep.”
“I can’t sleep,” she had said. “Obviously.”
“You should try,” Peter said.
Several minutes went by and Peter thought he had successfully evaded confrontation,when he felt something flicker twice between his ribs. Peter exhaled, lifted her ontop of him and looked her in the eye. “Hmmm?” he asked.
“I didn’t say anything,” she said.
“You didn’t say anything,” Peter repeated. “Did you just lick me?”
Gwen shrugged. “Uh, I guess, yeah I did.”
Peter closed his eyes. But their speaking somehow seemed to grant her further access,permission to continue. She kissed his face—eyebrow, chin, ear—quietly, and it wasonly when he began to push off her clothes that her demeanor shifted. She became loud,sharp in her movements, which gave Peter the distinct feeling she was performing forhim—or worse, that he was her first—a thought that Peter quickly pushed from his mind,even while he was covering her mouth with his hand.
“Shhh,” he whispered. “Do you want to get caught?”
Gwen had giggled into his hand at his little joke, which really was no joke at all.The old thrill of getting caught having sex, in this case, did not apply. He had paidfor the room; it was theirs to use as they wanted. Getting caught, in this case, appliedto each of their joint actions leading up to the acquisition of the hotel room, alaundry list of morally questionable decisions.
And so while he might have preferred to wait to consummate whatever they were goingto be to each other, it was Gwen who had pursued him. It was Gwen who had unfastenedthe buttons of his shirt and pushed her hand along the flat plane of his stomach,and it was Gwen who had made so many strange noises, so much like something in pain,that when Peter thought back to this first night, he had to work hard to remind himselfthat he hadn’t forced himself onto her. She seemed to oscillate between wanting torun things and wanting to follow his lead. She had asked him that night in the barto call her Gwen, to retire all other names for the purpose of addressing her, andhe had agreed, complied; besides, it was the name he had always used in his mind toaddress her even if he didn’t do so with his voice. So he was glad that she wantedto take the name he had offered her, but also it made him feel a little uneasy, likethere were parts about the rules they were making that only she understood.
For the first week, he’d allowed himself to be distracted.
“What would you rather be?” Gwen would ask. “A collie or a greyhound?”
“A collie,” he said. He kissed the underside of her wrist, where her veins crossedpaths.
“Montana or Wyoming?”
“Wyoming,” Peter said.
Gwen wrinkled her nose at him. “Invisibility or x-ray vision?”
Peter sat up. “What kind of question is that?”
“The one I’m asking,” Gwen said.
“Invisibility.” He said it quickly, but he could feel pressure building in his face,the shame of thinking himself special.
“Why?” Gwen said.
“How should I know,” he said.
It got quiet for a minute.
“It’s okay,” Gwen said after awhile. “I would want to be invisible too.”
More recently—perhaps as he grew to care for her more, perhaps as she grew to sharemore in common with the Gwen Stacy whose stories he read as a child—Peter had becomelazy with letting the messy contradictions in his brain hang loose for her to see.The other day Gwen had asked him, apropos of nothing, “So what do you think will happento us if we get caught?”
“Nothing will happen to you,” he assured her. “It’s a good thing we put on that littleshow with the gun for the security camera. We can say I kidnapped you, and no onewould question it.”
Gwen laughed. “How many years do you think you would get?” She was tracing her fingersin patterns along the small of his back, teasing him, testing him.
“Oh, ten? Twenty?” Peter said. “It doesn’t matter.” He leaned in for her mouth, bither lip softly. “We’re not going to get caught.”
“And if I say that I chose to leave with you, what would happen to me?” Her fingersceased their tracing pattern along the waist of his jeans. She was waiting for himto answer.
“You wouldn’t say that,” Peter said.
“And if I did?” She persisted.
“You wouldn’t go to jail,” he said. “Your father would pull some strings.”
“You know, with the law. It helps to have a father who’s the chief of police.”
Gwen wrinkled her nose. “My father’s an accountant,” she said.
“Admiral Stacy?” Peter said. He shook his head. “Only if by accountant you mean he’saccountable for the safety of the entire New York police force.”
Gwen continued to talk over him. “He’s an accountant. He’s never even been to NewYork! He’s fifty-two years old, and he has high blood pressure. He taught me to read.He took me camping in the Ozarks every summer until I turned thirteen.”
“I have a hard time believing he’d have time for so many vacations!” Peter said.
“Stop it,” Gwen said.
“We’re just playing.”
“I don’t want to play like this,” she said, and she turned from him suddenly, brusquely,and pretended to sleep.
“Gwen?” he said.
She faked a snore.
“I guess I’ll sleep on the couch,” he offered.
“Good idea,” said Gwen’s back.
They didn’t have a couch in the apartment. She knew that, obviously. Peter draggeda blanket and pillow to the cushioned chair near the window and began making a bedfor himself there. He looked out the window to the park where there was a man sortingmethodically through the trash can, seeming to catalog the contents of each objecthe extracted. An order existed in the most unlikely things if you just waited to detectit. Peter dozed off after a while, and when he woke up, it was because he could feelher standing over him. For a moment he thought he was dreaming, the old dream as ithad come to him in Iowa, kneeling over his bed—he held his breath, he waited for it—butthis was different.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he said.
“You were sleeping?” she asked.
“I guess so,” he said.
“I love you,” she said quietly, simply. “That’s why I can become her when I’m withyou.”
“But if you confuse my father with some stupid cartoon character again, I’ll leave.”
“Admiral Stacy is hardly a cart—”
She put her hand up to silence him. “Cartoon, comic book, whatever. Listen, I likewho I am when I’m with you—enough to want to alter certain parts of myself, even.But don’t let it make you arrogant enough to think you can go around changing everything.You can’t play God in other people’s memories, mess around with other people’s families.”
“I’m sorry,” Peter said. “It has nothing to do with your father. It has nothing todo with us.”
“I know that,” she said. “I wanted to make sure you knew it.”
“Of course,” he said.
“Also,” she paused, “I know what happens to Gwen Stacy.”
“What do you mean?” asked Peter.
“She gets killed.”
“Yes,” said Peter.
Gwen stared. “Maybe you better tell me what happened to her?”
Peter looked at the ceiling, then back at her. “The Green Goblin kidnapped her. Hebrought her to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge to get Spider-Man’s attention. But justwhen Spider-Man arrived, the Green Goblin pushed Gwen over the edge.”
“And Spider-Man doesn’t save her?”
“He tries to. He flings out his webbing. And it reaches her; his web wraps aroundher thigh as she’s falling. So for a second it seems like he’s rescued Gwen, but whenhe pulls her up to the bridge, she isn’t moving.”
“Because she’s dead,” Gwen offered.
“Pretty much,” Peter said. Of course it was more complex than that. There was theissue of responsibility that would plague him for a long time, because the fact thatshe was dead was one thing, but the cause of her death was another, a question thatwould remain obscured and unanswered to him.
Gwen swallowed. “This part of the story doesn’t have anything to do with us either.”
“Of course not,” said Peter.
She studied him around the eyes until she decided this answer would satisfy her. “Comeback to bed with me?” Gwen asked.
Peter smiled. “Yes,” he said. “The couch was kind of starting to hurt my back.”
She kissed him and pulled him back into bed with her. She rubbed his back until shefell asleep, leaving him alone in the room.
All this time the dreams did not return. Peter had been trying to channel them. Hehad been trying to encourage a sign that he’d done the right thing to “kidnap” Gwen,or whatever you wanted to call it, to rob the gas station, to cross state lines ina car that was not his own. But the dreams did not return, and Peter began to worrythat he had taken Gwen for a reason that was slowly receding, that he’d convincedher to accompany him on a quest whose rules she didn’t understand, because, of course,he hadn’t explained them. It had seemed for a time that Gwen had intuited their mission,for she had been a very take-charge kind of girl initially, but that too was waning,and now Peter wasn’t sure he trusted these motives himself. Peter resolved in thismoment to stop overlapping this childhood story over the very real woman whose bedhe shared. So he kept quiet about their responsibility, he stopped searching for overlaps,stopped waiting for the dreams to direct him, forgot about all of it for a time andallowed himself to focus on nothing but his love for her, and his desire to preserveit.
Gwen was developing her own ideas of how things should be directed with respect totheir identities, and they weren’t always in agreement with Peter’s. The day of theirjoint makeovers, Peter sensed it was the beginning of the end. But to clutch a fistfulof that hair! Peter barely had time to process the difference in her before Gwen beganintroducing the change she had in mind for him as well: glasses, a haircut. She hadher reasons. They were wanted criminals; their faces were on the news. Surely thiswas true, but this truth wasn’t a reality that Peter spent much time considering.He knew that they would not get caught until they had accomplished what they had comehere to do. Of this he was so certain, that in the first two weeks, he didn’t botherthinking of their mutual safety all that much, in terms of the law. But now safetywas on the forefront of his mind. She was flirting with disaster designing disguisesstraight out of the comic books. She had held up the glasses and told him to put themon, and he had complied. He pushed them up the bridge of his nose and blinked hiseyes. Watching her movements around the kitchen through the smudged plastic lenses,her body blurred, the general outline intact, she was Gwendolyn Stacy in the flesh.
“You’re next,” Gwen said. She produced a pair of scissors from the plastic bag onthe table and gave a few preemptive snips in the air, like a gunshot signaling a racehas begun.
He had let his hair grow for the past few months, and the longest strands now touchedthe collar of his shirt, but it was due to laziness more than choice. Sitting in akitchen chair, watching snips of his black hair coast to the floor all around him,around the blond blur that was Gwen Stacy, he felt completely devoted to her, he felthis love for her deepen and expand even as his fear grew.
It was a few days later when Gwen came home from work talking about a place Peterhad seen in a dream. She and Iva had started cleaning some new houses in Lincoln Park,blocks away from one branch of the Chicago River.
“There was this river filled with scrap metal,” Gwen explained over dinner. “It wasfloating on huge barges—piles of smashed up cars, stuff like that. Really strangelooking.”
Peter felt the muscles in his stomach tense. It was starting to happen. She was goingto lead him. “Where was it?” he asked. He swallowed the bite in his mouth. “Couldyou find your way back?”
Gwen looked impressed with herself to be carrying information that was somehow valuableto him. “Yeah, I think so,” she said.
“Tonight,” Peter said. “After dinner.”
Gwen shrugged. “Sure.”
After dinner, Gwen disappeared for fifteen minutes into the bathroom while Peter didthe dishes. It seemed to be his lot lately, dishes at work, dishes at home, but hedidn’t mind; he felt useful. He was just finishing up on the last of the pans whenhe heard Gwen behind him. “About ready?” she asked.
The dress. She had changed into it without him asking her to, and the sight of herstanding on the other side of the kitchen table in it without proper preparation madehim feel the need to steady himself against the counter.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” asked Gwen.
“Why are you wearing that?”
“Oh, this?” Gwen said, as if it were any random article of clothing. “I thought youliked it.”
“I love you in that dress,” he said. “But I didn’t think you liked to wear it outof the apartment.”
“Well why shouldn’t I?” she asked. “It’s comfortable, and I have a pretty limitedwardrobe here.”
Of course it was reasonable for her to want to wear the dress for reasons that hadnothing to do with him, but surely Gwen understood that there was more to the dressthan that. She was smart enough to understand that in wearing it, she exercised akind of power over him.
“Do you want me to change?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “You look great. Let’s go.”
They left around nine. As the bus turned onto Cortland Street, Gwen pulled the cordabove their seat to request a stop. They walked under an expressway viaduct and crosseda busy street. At first, it didn’t look familiar at all. There was a slight inclineup Cortland past a gas station, past a steel banner that announced the workplace ofA. FINKL AND SONS FOUNDRY. Then the bridge appeared, and beneath it the floating metal just as he’d seen it.Gwen joined him on the bridge and together they looked out onto the barges and watchedhow slowly they moved down the river. “Just like I said, right?”
He felt a shiver pass through him. “Let’s keep going,” he said. “See what else ishere.”
They wandered closer to the scrap pile itself, inside an open gate, past severalNO TRESPASSINGsigns, and watched the metal as it was collected and distributed by a giant metalarm. Even in this there was an order. Peter followed the route of several rounds ofscrap, as it made its journey from the haphazard pile to the teeth of the crushingmechanism. He had been standing, watching for several minutes, when he felt the firstexplosion.
Giant billows of smoke rose from the scrap yard, and then the bursting sound rosewith it. Two smaller bursts followed. Peter grabbed Gwen by the arm and started running,past the gate and the posted signs. He ran to the edge of the metal fence and duckedbehind a gutted car parked there. He pulled Gwen to his chest, trying to keep thesmoke from her face. He was thinking,Forgive us our trespasses. It was a phrase he remembered from his mother, part of the prayer she would saybefore they ate supper at night, and now it played on a loop in his brain—as if testamentto the fact that he didn’t belong here, that this shaking ground and smoke had nothingto do with him. He covered his head in his hands and waited for the ground to stopshaking, waited for the smoke to clear.Forgive us... Forgive us... He remembered hearing you weren’t supposed to breathe in smoke,so he batted at the thick air with his hands, looking around, trying to get his bearings.The first moving thing he saw was a black man on a bicycle. Peter called to the manfrom behind the car.
“Get down,” Peter yelled. “Over here.”
The man was walking his bike from the scrap yard, as if completely oblivious to allthe rising smoke and dust.
“What you mean ‘get down’?” the man yelled back. “The fuck you think you are, Gaza?”The man started to walk toward Peter and seemed surprised to see Gwen there as well.He shook his head for a moment as if reluctant to confirm that there was a girl therein the scrap pile. “Evening, miss,” he said finally, laughing, removing his cap. Heoffered Gwen his hand, and she accepted it.
“Thanks,” Gwen said. Now she was snickering too.
Peter lifted one knee from the pavement. He felt suddenly ashamed, but still moreconfused than anything. Of course Chicago was not known for its roadside explosions.“The smoke,” Peter said, as if in defense. “Something went off.”
The man laughed. “Happens all the time. Some asshole puts an engine in the scrap pile. . . Kaboom.” He mimed the force of the explosion with his two hands, then offeredone to Peter.
Peter accepted the lift. He dusted off his knees. “Fuck,” he said. He shook his head.
“Fuck, that’s right,” the man repeated, still laughing. “Where you from? Not here.”
Peter noticed the man’s bicycle again, now leaning against the car where they hadtaken cover. It was so small, it looked like a child’s bicycle, and behind it therewas a slack bit of rope that kept it tethered to a shopping cart. The shopping cartwas filled with scrap metal.
“We’re from New York,” Gwen said.
Peter gave her a look. “You work for the foundry?” he asked the man.
“I work for myself,” the man said. “Finkel pays by weight. I gather what I can.” Theman looked them up and down again, then between them—from Gwen to Peter and back again—asif he was contemplating something. His gaze rested heavily on Peter finally, and Petercould feel the man sizing him up as if comparing his features to something else he’dseen. Peter thought of the grimy, heavy-lined police sketches that depicted kidnappers.He wondered if such a sketch existed in a rough approximation of his own face.