“Here, there, it doesn’t matter. You need to live in the moment.” A short story that contemplates the authentic cost of severing the ties that bind…
by: Carla Sarett
I always cringed on birthdays. I’m not sure if it was the songs, the sugary cakes, the cloying smiles, or because we’re one year older, and let’s face it, closer to dying. Maybe because I’d always known that someone gave me away when I was born.
But still, every birthday, there used to be a gift to remind me to celebrate…well, something. That year, the gift was an emerald ring with a brilliant green stone encircled by tiny fiery rubies. It looked as if it must have cost a fortune.
“Happy twenty-two, darling,” Jill, said, as she handed me a mug of hot coffee. The mug had a smiley face on it, and her refrigerator had magnets on it shaped like cats — pure Jill, she lets me call her that instead of Mom.
“It’s perfect for an engagement ring.” I said.
“You’re engaged? When were you planning to tell me?” Jill’s face turned red, as if I’d spilled ketchup on the newly-waxed floor.
“I’m telling you now, aren’t I?”
“Are you in love with him?” she asked, with a sad, bewildered smile.
My phone announced the arrival of my Uber. “I’m meeting him now, I might not be back tonight.”
“It’s your birthday,” Jill said in a small defeated voice, born of hundreds of lost battles.
“Next year,” I said, and I rushed into the driveway.
The driver had milky-white skin, frizzy hair, and said he was bored with America. He asked if I had any ideas about what he should do with his life. We hadn’t even left the driveway, and this guy was having an existential crisis.
“Why not throw it away?” I suggested. “That’s what I plan to do.”
My driver backed his car out of the driveway without looking, narrowly missing my neighbor’s son Mike, who was riding his red bike, but neither Mike nor the driver noticed the almost-collision. I thought of all the sweet kids who had been injured or killed that very second as Mike raced away, oblivious to his amazing luck.
My app said the driver’s name was Ari. “What about you?” Ari asked.
“My life is accidental. Like you and me talking, that’s pure fate. I could take this train, or I could take another train, and I’d meet different people on different trains. There’s no way to predict.”
Ari had the air on, full force, which felt frigid on a hot, sticky night. His hand had a green tattoo on it. It read “Ari,” as if he might forget who he was if not for the label, or maybe he once had a different name like Barry or Larry or Harry.
He said, “Random, that’s good. If you come back, I might see you or I might not.”
“But we’ve already met, so there’s some fate at work. The question is, if you weren’t driving this car, what would be you doing right now?”
Ari turned, so he faced the backseat, and his eyes narrowed into secret slits. “Like I said, I’m bored,” he said, as if being bored were something he’d invented, rather than what everyone is.
“Why don’t you drive me someplace? That might be fun. Just go ahead and pick a random city, I don’t care. You pick.”
I handed him some cash and he counted the twenties, managing to be careful and indifferent at once. I’d taken the money from Jill’s wallet since I figured taking from her wasn’t stealing. I closed my eyes, imagined Jill missing me, but that made no sense, since I had just left, and missing people takes a long time. Maybe tomorrow or the next day I’m allowed to miss her.
The car felt like a speeding refrigerator. I was freezing so I hugged myself to get warm.
We slowed down at a dimly lit airport, a small dingy place that I’d forgotten existed, the kind that flies to forgotten cities one rarely considers: Albany and Allentown and Harrisburg. The place was deserted. Was it a private airport? Ari seemed to have forgotten my existence as he parked the car in an empty parking lot.
A guy hopped in, sidled next to Ari. His long hair was oily, and he smelled like tobacco, marijuana, and musk.
The guy said, “Get rid of her.”
Ari smiled and said, “Not a bad idea. Let’s dump her here.”
It was the middle of nowhere. I pleaded, sounding whiny and spoiled, “I can’t get a signal here and my cell’s dying. Please.”
“Poor you,” the new guy said — only I was mistaken, he was a woman, not a man, with a long swan’s neck. “Not now, we’ll get rid of her later.”
The woman began applying lip liner, then maroon lipstick, and a cream to hide the dark bluish circles under her eyes. She’d had more glamour as a man, or when I considered her a man. Her shoulders were bony.
Soon, we were on a freeway, racing above the speed limit. The man-turned- woman started smoking Turkish cigarettes.
“My parents are rich, they’ll give you money if that’s what you want,” I said. I was beginning to smell like fear, it was humiliating.
The woman half-smiled. “That’s convenient, call them. Ten thousand, by tomorrow,” she said, and handed me her cell.
Jill answered. “Mom, I’m in big trouble, it’s these weird people I’m with. If you don’t give me ten thousand dollars, they might do something. Can you get it?”
I thought I heard her breathing or maybe holding her breath. I wondered if she was in the kitchen or in her bedroom, and if my father was on the line.
All she said was: “Don’t.” Her voice was soft as if I were dead or dying.
“Mom, I was never engaged to anyone, it was a joke, and the emerald ring, it’s way nicer than I deserve. I should have thanked you. If you do this, I promise everything will be different.”
She said nothing.
I don’t know why, but in that chaotic moment I wondered if my biological mother had been paid for me. Jill said she’d wanted me more than anything in the world. Ten thousand?
Maybe twenty. I thought. Babies are worth a fortune, but when they’re older, they’re hard to unload.
“Please,” I croaked, but there was no answer, as if no one was on the line. Still, I didn’t hear a dial tone, so Jill hadn’t hung up.
Suddenly, the woman grabbed the phone, and said, “Forget this call ever happened.”
Then, she and Ari laughed and laughed until they drooled, until they were crying, that’s how hilarious they found it. The woman’s mascara formed thick blue pools under her eyes.
“Did my mother say anything?” I asked, but the woman ignored me.
The car veered off the highway, down an alley, until we reached a small house at the end of a well-lit cul-de-sac. Ari pulled me out of the car. He was shorter than I was, with a pot belly.
I was in a barely lit room, reeking of cheap wine, inhabited by skinny people wearing tight clothes. Ari and the woman vanished into a closet, from which there emanated tiny trills of laughter, like baby laughs, and a soft infant moan, oh yes.
I found an old-fashioned telephone and called Jill, but there was no answer. I listened to the ringing, as if it were a human voice reassuring me that telephones still functioned in some other world.
A rail-thin woman with spiky hair, electric blue eyes, and orange lips handed me a drink in a plastic cup. She wore an old yellow Jimi Hendrix t-shirt, ripped at the neckline, and her feet were bare, which led me to assume this was her house.
“Thanks,” I said. It was plain tap water, lukewarm. It tasted disgusting.
“You look lost,” she said.
“A guy named Ari dumped me here. Where am I?”
“Ari,” she laughed, and named a town, a sad depressed town, about a half-hour from my parent’s leafy-green suburb. “This is my birthday party, although I don’t know half the people here.”
“It’s my birthday, too, only it hasn’t gone too well. Actually, it’s a disaster.”
“Been there. My husband left me on this day last year. That’s right, on my birthday, took the kids, said I was an unfit mother.”
She admitted that she was. “I kept forgetting them — I had a son and a daughter — in parks or stores or wherever. Happened a few times. I drove home, and I forgot all about them, like they never existed. Crazy, right? I’d remember them a few hours later, but it was an afterthought, like a package I’d left behind. No one got hurt or molested, but it didn’t look good. There are laws these days.”
“I guess it’s lonely without them,” I said, but the woman looked at me blankly, as if she were wondering whom she could possibly miss. “Weird, but where I just was before Ari picked me up is where I’d like to be now, even though at the time I wanted to leave, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“Here, there, it doesn’t matter. You need to live in the moment,” the woman said, like a mantra she’d learned in drug rehab. “That’s a nice ring. Emerald?”
“It’s real. You can have it if you drive me home now, like this very minute.”
I removed the ring, it slid off easily, and pressed it into her soft palm. She stared at it as if it had a secret code. We had identical tattoos across our wrists, three Chinese letters whose meaning I forgot, only her wrists had thin horizontal scars.
“Bad luck to give away a present,” she said, and with a surgeon’s delicacy, slid the ring back on my finger, and proceeded to hold my hand tightly.
“I am the bad luck,” I said.
Outside, a car honked, someone was calling my name.
“Guess that’s you,” she said, releasing me.
Another car, another driver — this one said he knew where I was going. “Someone called the Uber emergency line. We can find any driver, anywhere, anytime through GPS,” he said, as if he’d personally tracked me down in the Sahara and earned himself a fat reward.
Jill must have panicked and called. Knowing that made me warm and drowsy as a cat, until the car came to a stop at the entrance to our local hospital.
“You’re picking up another ride?” I asked.
“No, this is for you.”
“This must be some kind of mistake,” I said. “Believe it or not, I don’t live in a hospital. I actually live in a very nice house.”
He yawned. “No, lady, right place. Emergency, something about a heart attack.”
That’s the problem with life, you can treat it like a joke, but it’s not. I walked into reception, and was led to an empty waiting room, where the man I called my father sat. I sat beside him, one seat between us.
“What was that crap about ten thousand dollars? Drugs? Some guy? Or was this just greed? We know you’ve been stealing.”
A few hundred here and there — it added up. Jill’s habit, carrying loads of cash. She said if you had cash when someone ambushed you, you didn’t get your throat slit, so if that’s all it took to be safe, why worry?
“I meant to give it back,” I said, and I rambled on about the Uber driver, the empty airport, the threat which I realized was a cruel, pointless joke. “The point is, tomorrow’s a new day, I can change,” I said, like a tired motivational speaker.
I wasn’t convincing, even to myself. My dad gave a sour laugh.
“No you won’t,” he said. “You’re a liar and you’re a thief, and you’ve made my wife sick. Say good-bye to her, then leave. I don’t want to hear from you ever again. I’ll call the cops. Do you understand?”
“But what will you tell Mom?”
“Not your problem,” he said. “You don’t have a mother.”
He handed me a check for twenty thousand dollars, twice what I had asked for. I should have ripped it up, but I put in my pocket.
The other day, I drove past the house, early in the morning, when everything was quiet aside from the birds. It’s a large rolling property, with an emerald green lawn. The house had a new reddish roof, a fresh coat of white paint, and, along the side, a dozen or so freshly-planted rhododendrons in luscious purples, pinks, reds — all unbearably lovely.
Some creep, probably drunk, had dumped a package of cigarettes and a bottle of beer in the middle of the stone driveway. I stopped my car on the side of the road and quickly put them in a plastic bag I had with me from Target.
On my knees, I saw her, wearing her fluffy blue robe — had she kept it all these years?
She’d gone grey, her gait was slow.
“What’s going on out here?” she asked.
“This fell out by accident, sorry if I scared you,” I said instead of everything I longed to say.
I stood up and faced her. I had gained thirty pounds, cut my hair, and dyed it — how quickly I had changed. Her smile was polite, friendly, the kind she used for strangers.
“I’m glad you found what you need,” she said in a disappointed voice.
Her eyes clouded. It was my birthday — she was waiting for my old self, she would never find her, no one could.
“Yes, I did. Well…I have a long trip ahead.”
“You be safe, now, you hear?” she said.
Carla Sarett’s stories and essays have been published in literary and humor magazines including Defenestration, Black Rabbit Quarterly, Loch Raven Review, Blue Lyra Review (nominated,Best American Essay) and others. In 2018, her essay, “Run Sally Run” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The Inclusive Vision (Peter Lang Publishing, 2018) contains her essay “The Hidden Female Face of New York.”