Pain-Shaped Place

Overnight, Jacinda Gugas has decided that she needs to end her relationship with Annie Cavanaugh, her lover of eleven months. But this is not the time for such a thing, or the location. Yesterday, they flew from Austin to San Francisco to take part in Jacinda’s half-sister’s wedding. This evening, they rehearse.

From their hotel bed, Annie calls to Jacinda. “We miss the ship, and it’s all your fault!”

In the bathroom, Jacinda straightens from the sink, drying her face with pats of the towel that she tracks in the mirror. As a product manager for apps development back in Austin, she spends her days asking what she believes should be obvious questions, and now here she is on forced vacation, doing the same. Like, shouldn’t the Marriott have softer towels? And, how about a less draconian setting than Alcatraz to get the two families to mingle? And, isn’t she worthy of love?

“Jacinda!”

Jacinda counts to ten and steps into the room. “Ship,” she says to Annie. “Sure it’s not a boat? Doesn’t a ferry take you to Alcatraz?”

“Fine. A water-going vessel. The point is, we’re going to miss it.”

Annie has flopped on her back across the bed, her jeans and sneakers jumbled on the carpet. She was going to change into something cute, she said, before Jacinda disappeared into the bathroom, and now here she is in a flouncy little skirt that edges up her legs. Jacinda stares at those legs, which are solid and sexy, and seriously considers touching them. But the skirt is just too stupid for a jail on an island. Annie is dressing for Jacinda’s mother.

“And ‘ferry’ is a tricky one, too,” Jacinda says. “Especially here. I mean, ‘I’ll take the ferry’ or ‘My ferry was late.’ That could get you into trouble.”

Annie props herself on her elbows. Her face, usually upturned and open, has drawn itself in, her features bunched like flowers in a fist. Still beautiful, but no longer as lovely. “Last night,” she says. “They treated me like I belonged, Jacinda. Like I was family.”

Jacinda nods. She should keep in mind that Annie, at twenty-five, is nine years younger. She should also keep in mind that Annie grew up the only child of a single father who died when she was seven—a tragedy that left Annie not only a most unfortunately named little orphan girl, but also one who would grow up to covet relations.

But last night, at dinner, Annie said that Jacinda’s mother was someone to emulate, someone to be.

Sad, Jacinda thinks, and it is real pain that she feels, pain that slumps around inside her, finding a pain-shaped place to live. She sinks to the corner of the hotel bed and thinks how easy it would be to drag Annie’s foot onto her lap, to give in and rub it and see what happens. She should, she thinks, just as she should be forgiving, understanding, better. But then she’d be somebody else.

Annie reaches for her, and Jacinda rises. “What?” Annie says. “Now I can’t touch you?”

“I didn’t say that,” Jacinda replies as she heads back toward the bathroom. “All I’m saying is no Alcatraz for me. I’ve done nothing wrong.”

 

After Annie gives up pleading through the bathroom door and leaves, Jacinda takes a second shower, as she is known to do. Under the water, she evaluates her life and love’s place in it. She has wanted love, and there have been times when she’s thought she found it, a real true bond. But how was she to put up with Rose’s endless trips for work, or Helene’s lingering fondness for her ex-husband’s money? Or Maggie’s strict adherence to a Paleo diet, Leah Sue’s obsessive doting on her dogs, or Amy’s ugly feet? She couldn’t, and each of those women came to seem like trips to the grocery, a list of what she needed forever left behind.

And now this, Annie’s perverse fascination with Dot, Jacinda’s mother.

Jacinda soaps her throat and remembers a day when she was ten and Dot explained exactly how love worked. Love, Dot claimed, possessed the exact same properties as water—no edges, hard to contain, and once it was primed, “just turn on the faucet.”

Dot said all this the day after returning from her fourth honeymoon, the one in this very city, where Jacinda is now. Dot spoke while soaking under bubbles in the tub, with Jacinda perched on the toilet lid, Jerry, her half-brother, balanced poorly on the hamper, and Pammy, her half-sister, sitting cross-legged on the bathroom floor. Jacinda held a drawing that Dot had made earlier in the day, using one of Jerry’s crayons to scribble the entire page blue.

“You,” Dot had said, holding up a thumb and forefinger very close together. “So tiny. But the ocean.” She spread her arms wide before tapping what she’d drawn. “I’ve seen it, little girl. It’s huge. It would swallow you whole.”

So, while her mother talked about love from the tub, Jacinda stared at this drawing, imagining all that water, all that love. She listened as well to her newest stepfather, Paolo, who crooned in another language past the bathroom door. At least he was kinder than One, who was not her father, her father apparently not worth marrying. And Paolo was definitely more sober than Two and Two-Squared, the same man married twice, once for Jerry and once for Pammy. Then Three came and went so quickly that Jacinda could barely remember him. Four was Paolo, who would seem like a saint after Five came along. Then Six would prove to be surprisingly thoughtful, but rarely home, Seven would die almost immediately, and Eight would turn out to be Early Earl Gugas, the one who lasted. To everyone’s surprise, he adopted them all.

Jacinda shuts off the shower and steps out, staring at the mirror, staring at herself.

For here she is, nothing hidden, except by flesh. And that only barely, for she’s as bony as ever, all angles and juts, her body looking ready to fend off whatever her mouth or actions can’t easily turn away. As it should, Jacinda thinks, for what her mother explained that day, without even realizing it, was that love, all that water—it can become deep and dangerous. It forces anyone sensible to swim for the shore.

 

Fog layers the view by the time Jacinda is dressed. In the Marriott hallway, she finds a young girl alone inside the elevator, no buttons pushed. The girl wears a faded pink swimsuit and stands facing the machine’s one reflective panel, her tongue stretched between thumb and index finger. Her tongue is purple, a deep unnatural hue.

“You lost?” Jacinda asks.

The girl releases her tongue and wipes her mouth. “Are you?”

“Never sure,” Jacinda replies. In the lobby, she weaves through the accidental gathering of comers and goers. She picks one to follow, dubbing him Bland Man. At times, strangers know where to go better than she does, but once outside, this one leads her nowhere interesting, and she loses him in the crowd. Along the wharf, boats without sails bob and settle on the waves, looking like a stand of denuded trees in winter. Jacinda feels sorry for deciduous trees, their basic shape made visible for all to see. When she was a girl, Five pruned all the trees in the yard, and did so drunk. He left them lopsided, shapeless. He left Jacinda feeling the same.

She turns, but can barely pick out the tips of the bridge that requires genuflection, and over there, a fuzzy mass that’s Alcatraz.

Have fun, Jacinda thinks. It’s summer, and she’s cold.

Over a meal of extremely good crab, she decides yet again that being alone is best, everything known and everything safe—really there are so many positive words she might use to describe being alone. Eventually, though, the chill forces her back to the Marriott, where she thinks she might nap. But there is her mother, standing in Jacinda’s room as if it is her own. Dot leans toward the mirror, her name spelled out on the frame of her eyeglasses in sparkly diamonelles. Otherwise, she wears a slip, which is black and silky and awfully short.

Without removing her hands from her breasts, Dot turns as Jacinda closes the door behind her. She studies Jacinda, head cocked. “A six, dear. That’s all I can give you today.” Dot returns to her image in the mirror. “Is it the slip?” she asks. “Or the boobies?”

“I am not discussing your breasts,” Jacinda says.

“But you like women.”

“What’s that got to do with you?”

“Well, I guess I didn’t love you enough. Or show it enough. I—”

“Mom, once again, I’m not a lesbian because of you. I’m fucking nuts because of you.”

Dot sighs. She clenches her fists and bites her lips. She might as well sing and dance, Jacinda thinks. The “What-I-Put-Up-With Blues” to accompany the “Jig of Desperation.” Actually, her mother looks good in the slip, though there is something odd about the bust line.

“A bra your size?” Jacinda suggests.

“Oh, I wish Annie was here. She was so sweet to come back with me when I wanted to leave that dreary old jail. But then she deserted me,” Dot adds, voice flattening, “because as soon as I promised to wait right here, she went downstairs to look for you.” Dot points at Jacinda’s reflection. “You don’t deserve her.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Hey, let’s go shopping. There’s bound to be a lingerie store nearby.”

Jacinda tells her no. She cannot relive yesterday evening, when she accompanied Dot and Annie on a shopping spree despite being tired after a full day of travel. Downtown, all the storefronts surrounding Union Square lined up like teeth post-orthodontia, but only she seemed to consider this noteworthy. Annie stuck to Dot’s side as if the two of them were schoolgirls. They even held hands.

And then, just off the square in a Cole Haan shoe store, Annie ruined everything. They were being helped by a shiny-haired rube in mallard suspenders. His name was Neil, and he seemed emboldened by a belief in the hard sale. He and Dot hit it off immediately, Annie close behind as they stalked the store. Jacinda plopped on a bench, as uninterested in shoes as ever. Still, she tried, nodding as Dot tried on patent heels, tried on woven flats. Then Dot fastened her gaze onto a pair of drivers, tawny moccasins with rubber nubs on the sole.

“You don’t drive,” Jacinda pointed out. Earl carted her everywhere.

“Oh, no,” Dot answered. “You wear these around the house and they massage your feet.”

Jacinda sneered. This from a woman known to wear open-toed slingbacks around the house, slingbacks with feathery pom-poms glued to the top.

“You’re ridiculous,” Jacinda told her.

Which is when Annie stepped in. “May I try a pair, too?” she asked of Dot, as if she needed permission. “Please?”

Jacinda had to turn away. The entire scene disgusted her, plus all the nattering that took place afterward, there and at dinner, Annie saying what she did about Jacinda’s mother, calling her fascinating and hanging on her every word.

And now, not even a full day later, Dot wants a reenactment.

Jacinda wants to pinch her mother, hard. “No,” she says. “No more shopping. Ever. Besides, the slip looks fine.” She’ll say anything to make Dot put her dress back on. It looks forlorn draped over the chair in the corner.

“You’re sure?” Dot asks.

“Yes. Absolutely. Shouldn’t Earl be back and looking for you by now?”

Dot ignores the hint. She backs up to sit on the bed and then crosses her legs, petting the spot beside her, as if it were a cat. After an uncomfortable stretch of time, Jacinda gives in and joins her, thinking that Dot looks fleshy up close, as if age, now that it has finally begun to show, is doing its work in haste. Jacinda allows herself a tiny smile.

“You look tired,” Dot says.

“Again. Thanks, Mom.”

“Just trying to be helpful.”

“That’s you.”

“Jacinda, please be a good girl. I know you like to act tough, but I’m your mother. With me, you can relax.” Jacinda catches a small wince, a creasing of Dot’s forehead that looks like an actual sign of honest emotion. “I mean it,” Dot pouts. “Would I really lie to you?”

“Yes.”

“Since Earl, Jacinda. You know before that doesn’t count.”

“It doesn’t?” Jacinda is surprised to hear this, as she always is. She can’t help but think of when she was fourteen and Dot was having another affair while still married to Paolo. Dot hired Jacinda that summer, the job requiring that she play in the front lawn and watch to see if Paolo might return off-schedule. If he did, she was to yell his name and run and hug him, keeping him outside for as long as she could.

It was a long summer, but Jacinda did her job. She took her hula hoop to the front lawn and rocked her hips in a circular motion, her arms lifted for balance, hands waving hi and bye. The house slumped behind her, cars meandering down the street as Jacinda counted toward her record. She’d started at a hundred and fifty, which helped. And then a sweltering day, on which she rocked and rocked, thinking about what her mother did inside the house, what two of her friends said they’d already done themselves. But not Jacinda, who believed in being dignified, above all the messiness of her mother’s life. And when she saw Paolo’s little car that day, she knew to rush him inside and thereby save him.

Exactly as she wants to save herself now.

“Earl didn’t make you another person,” Jacinda says to her mother. “You just gave up.”

“No,” Dot tells her. “I grew up.”

It’s an amazing announcement. Jacinda’s mother, who can’t balance a checkbook or pack her own bags or even make coffee—this woman is claiming to be an adult.

And if that were true, what would it make Jacinda?

A child, she guesses, finally a child. But children listen to their parents, children believe what their parents say. And Jacinda cannot. It feels suddenly like a failing, as if all this time the fault has been hers.

When Jacinda steps from the bathroom, there is Annie.

It feels like a repeat, a glitch in the progression of the day, Jacinda again from the shower, Annie again on the bed. But Annie sits cross-legged this time, her hair tucked back. In one hand, she holds a small magnifying mirror, a mascara-laden wand in the other. These and the other beauty tools in the hammock of her lap are gifts that Dot bought for her yesterday.

In a robe, Jacinda steps past Annie to open the curtains wide. The weather has changed again. Sailboats zip like children’s toys. Alcatraz looks like a drawing. Jacinda finds the one pair of pantyhose in her suitcase, grimacing at the prospect. Then she catches sight of Annie’s sweet face and apologizes for earlier. She doesn’t enjoy this pattern of hers: wanting love despite herself, realizing, too late, that she shouldn’t have tried. So she strokes Annie’s lips, calming them, settling them, failing to notice the effect this has. Annie’s legs part. Annie’s chin lifts.

“There once was a girl named Annie,” Jacinda chants, “who had a really great fanny. But then she met Dot, who remains such a snot—”

Annie bites her thumb, so hard that Jacinda yelps. Then the bite becomes chewing, nipping, kissing, Annie’s soft mouth traveling higher, across Jacinda’s clavicle, inside the robe and down. They knot on the bed, expensive makeup smearing across Jacinda’s breasts as she hears herself whispering yes, her head twisting until she sees herself in the mirror.

Jacinda digs with her heels, bunching the bedspread. She dumps herself to the floor.

Annie lifts to stare at her. “What, Jacinda? What?”

“I’m moving out,” Jacinda says, standing quickly and fumbling to tie shut the robe. “As soon as we get home. I’ll stay in a hotel until you can find a place of your own.”

Annie squints at Jacinda, tilting her head. It’s a gesture so reminiscent of Dot that Jacinda expects to be rated. But Annie merely rises and continues to dress, as if nothing has happened. She brushes her hair. She considers jewelry. She does not speak—not when they leave the room, and not on the elevator, which stops at every floor but one, and not when they meet the rest of Jacinda’s family in the lobby, where Dot rushes around, straightening ties and smoothing skirts, tackling Jerry’s cowlick with spitty fingers before rushing everyone into waiting cars.

It’s only as they cross the Golden Gate Bridge and Jacinda glowers past it, studying that dark ocean and thinking, so much love, so much love, that Annie says, “No.”

 

In front of the church, a small stone chapel perched high on a dark and jagged hill, Jacinda tries to imagine it as more than an illustration in some melodramatic children’s tale. At least the wind, like knives into her skin, helps her sense of reality. And the sound of the waves, too, slapping at the land as if the land has been naughty. Get that land a lawyer, Jacinda thinks. She breaks from the group and trots down a dim path, moving directly into the wind, as if to show it. Night has wrested control completely, but she can make out a little bench ahead, pale and waiting. When she sits, the concrete is cold, the clearing surrounded by young trees. She watches them bend, gracefully, and then cups her hands over her chilled ears and admits that Annie has her spooked. It is simply unlike Annie to state her position without whole minutes of cautious reasoning to back it up.

So tonight’s sudden insistence means . . . what?

Jacinda has little idea. Even worse, she finds this new certainty of Annie’s kind of sexy.

Stop it, Jacinda thinks. She turns to thoughts of work. Monday, she’ll be back. She glances at her watch and breaks the time left on this trip into hours, into minutes. She’s working on seconds when she hears voices in the wind and bends more deeply than the trees, as if bending over is a successful way to hide. Her face to her knees, she shivers, fearing that Annie and Dot have ganged up and come to lecture.

But it’s Early Earl and Jerry, the two men on the dim path, their big heads outlined against the sky when the moon slips from cover. She considers joining them, pushing in and supporting Jerry, but they don’t see her. Typical, Jacinda thinks. She watches Earl lean toward his adopted son, his beefy arm around Jerry’s shoulders, their heads almost touching.

Finally, when Earl leaves, Jacinda sits up and whistles an old signal of theirs to her brother. He wheels around and spots her. Jerry ambles over, but doesn’t sit. This annoys Jacinda, who wanted to lean against him, to burrow in. He is her true family, big and sloppy, his smile so rarely in need of coaxing that people mistakenly think he’s dumb.

“He wants your kidney,” she guesses. “He wants your soul.”

“What’s with Annie?”

Jacinda sighs. “It’s over,” she starts. “I—”

“Hey, shut up.” Jerry rears back, his eyes gone wide. “God,” he says. “And I thought Earl was talking out of his ass.”

“What did he say, Jerry?”

“Oh, nothing. Just that he thinks I’m wasting my life.”

“Pleasant.”

“Yeah.” Into the grass, Jerry stubs the shiny toe of first one shoe and then the other, Jacinda wondering who polished them. “He wants me to come work with him,” Jerry says.

“Oh, please. Like you’d ever.”

Jacinda shifts to see him better, needing that easy grin of his. She doesn’t get one, though, and so leans back over. Jerry waits tables at the same restaurant back in Austin where Annie works, and it’s difficult to imagine him in real estate. All that grinning and backslapping, that listening and nodding. Well, actually, he’d be good at that. He’d be the big jolly elf of empty buildings. But the paperwork. The paperwork would drive him batty, and Jacinda can’t bear the thought of that.

“Wouldn’t you need a license?” she mumbles into her legs.

“Says he’s going to retire,” Jerry explains. “Says he won’t even be there.”

“At all?”

“Says he and Mom are going to travel. Says that with Pammy settled, he just needs me taken care of and then no more worries.”

Jacinda sits up. What about me? she wonders. “And you fell for that?”

Finally, Jerry plops down beside her, crossing his arms. “It’s really fucking cold,” he says. “Can we go inside already?”

“No. Annie’s in there.”

“You’re worse than me.”

Exactly, Jacinda thinks. “So? What about me?”

“What about you what?”

“Pammy’s settled. Jerry’s taken care of. Just screw Jacinda?”

“When have you accepted help?”

“Doesn’t mean it can’t be offered.”

Jerry laughs, as if she’s joking. He puts his arms around her and snuggles in tight. “Married,” he says. “Can you imagine?” His breath feels good and warm against her neck. “Ever wonder why Pammy’s the normal one?” he asks.

“Also the dumbest,” Jacinda points out.

“Yeah. But maybe that’s a good thing.”

“Jesus, Jerry.” Jacinda elbows him away, bolting up to fling her arms dramatically. “Are you even hearing yourself?”

Jerry shrugs. Still seated, he grabs her nearest hand and tugs, Jacinda struggling above him. “Can’t have you and Annie to count on,” he says, “then I guess I’ll need something else. Guess I’ll need a job that I’ll absolutely hate, that I’ll blame you for forever.” He lets go, grinning as Jacinda flails from her sudden release, quickly stumbling. “Or you could stop being a bitch. For my sake,” he adds, “if not for Annie’s.”

 

“This chapel,” the groom’s mother intones, “is of historical significance.” Her name is Eloise Schluck, and she is an excellent reminder that Dot is not the only exasperating mother in the world.

From the safety of the eleventh pew, Jacinda makes faces at her, Eloise with everyone else near the front. There is Pammy, beautiful and placid, her too-handsome groom by her side and his family just beyond, as if they’ve all been posed. And there is Dot, with Annie. And Earl, looking exceedingly pleased with himself, Jerry listing at his shoulder.

Watching them, Jacinda wants to heckle, to be that voice in the dark that refuses to let anyone get away with anything. But their merry faces stop her. It’s surprisingly beautiful—these people here to join the Gugas and the Schluck.

And Annie in the middle of it, though not for long.

Oh, they’ll still be friends, Jacinda guesses, Annie and Jerry for certain, Annie and Dot if they must. But any real connection will eventually become difficult.

Because of her: bad Jacinda, evil Jacinda.

She leans back. Just the cruel nature of self-preservation, she tells herself. Just the difference between what you desire and what you need, compromise the equivalent of treading water. She pictures those waves outside, wearing away everything in sight. Then she drops her head, loneliness surging so quickly that she coughs, thrusting forward. She hacks until a sudden round of pats on her back helps her to stop. Breathing deeply, she twists to find her stepfather stuffed into the pew behind her. She can’t imagine how he got there so quickly.

“Don’t,” she says. “You’re cracking ribs.”

“Such your mother’s daughter,” Earl pronounces. He shakes his head as if he finds this lamentable, as if it is true. “Fighting when you don’t even want to. And you be nice to your mother. She’s earned that, little girl.”

“Look, what she’s earned is between you two,” Jacinda says. “I don’t talk about what goes on in my bedroom. I don’t think you should either.”

Earl blushes. Jacinda catches the rise of color from the corner of her eye and has to turn and stare. “Sorry,” she whispers.

“Jacinda, Jacinda. I do love you so.”

She can’t stick out her tongue, as she did at her stepfathers when she was a child. And she can’t hit back, as she tried her best to do with Five. But she can turn away, even as she hears him continue. Hears how she doesn’t let herself be happy. How she looks for ways to be sad. “We all worry about you,” he says, but Jacinda doesn’t believe him. He told Jerry otherwise this very night. And it’s not as if she’s just some glum lump of gloom all the time. She has hopes, dreams. She wants love, if it could be safely formed, maybe wrapped and kept in the freezer.

She thinks to profess these facts, but Earl stands, working his way toward the aisle.

And now she misses him. She feels left behind.

From beneath her bangs, Jacinda watches as Earl whispers to Dot, his lips right down to her ear. He really loves her. And does that make him a better person? A more ridiculous one? Jacinda has no idea why he’s been the one to last. Or why her mother has been lucky enough to find him. Unable to watch them any longer, Jacinda’s gaze falls on Annie, who has apparently been working to catch her eye. Jacinda would very much like to join her.

Instead, she motions to the doorway, to anyplace beyond it where they might be alone.

 

They have maybe a minute in the mint-colored women’s room before Dot barges in, a minute in which Annie has literally thrown up her hands and proclaimed, “But I don’t get it. Why can’t you love me?”

“I can,” Jacinda assured her. “I have.”

And then there is Dot, and whatever Jacinda felt before walking in here is gone. She’s trapped. In a dismal little room with three tiny stalls and two tiny sinks and a smell that’s decidedly chemical, she’s trapped with Dot the alien and Annie the pod person.

Looking from one to the other, Jacinda fears that she just might scream, might stamp her feet and rip her clothes and act just like her mother.

She cries instead. She has not planned this and is as surprised as anyone when it happens. The tears simply appear, wetness sliding down her face, which watches itself in the counter-to-ceiling mirror. My face, she thinks. Those are my tears on my face. But she might as well be back at the Marriott, watching the bay through the window, as reflected in the mirror.

“Jacinda?” Dot says. “What are you doing?”

Jacinda nods, as if nodding answers the question. She tries to concentrate on a mark in the mirror, but her eyes return to her face, intent as it is on surprising her. It’s only when Annie attempts to hold her hand that she can stop herself, that she can step away and wipe her cheeks and laugh, as if she might not be crazy. “Sorry,” she says. “No biggie.”

“But what’s wrong?” Dot asks.

Her question is directed at Annie, and it’s Annie who answers. “She feels left out,” Annie fibs, trying to cover for her. “She’s not a bridesmaid.”

“Oh, Jacinda,” Dot says. “You told Pammy to leave you out.”

Jacinda covers her face with both hands, pressing as hard as she can. She should act as she does at work, assured and reassuring. But Dot suggested earlier that she was the adult, Jacinda the child, and Jacinda is finding it ridiculously easy to slip into that role right now, decades too late for it to be helpful to anyone.

“I know!” Jacinda wails, forcing the words between her palms.

“Then, why—” Dot starts.

“Mom! I don’t want to be a fucking bridesmaid. I don’t even want to be here!”

“Then I guess you shouldn’t have come.”

“Really?” Jacinda drops her hands. “Because you demanded that I come. You cried, remember? You’d be heartbroken? And it’s all about you, Mom. You, you, you.”

Dot looks to the side. “You’re being rude.”

Jacinda has to laugh, a quick bark of sound that is actually painful. Blinking, she waits for Dot to look at her, and then the words come easily, as if she’s known them all along. “Mom,” Jacinda says calmly, “I will listen to no more requests, no more demands, no more threats. After this weekend, we will not talk. We will not see each other. You and me are done.”

Jacinda isn’t entirely convinced that she means this forever, though she might. Either way, she quite likes the silence that follows her pronouncement. It’s a stirring, gathering silence, which scares her a little, while also making her feel something other than small. As she concentrates on this feeling, she can almost ignore Dot’s grunt. But then the sound does break through, and Jacinda can only marvel that it says so much.

Says, Not a shock.

Says, Still hurtful.

Says, So sorry I’m the one that stuck around.

Or no, that last bit is said in full. Dot says these words and then walks toward Jacinda, who turns and tenses, eyes firmly shut. Jacinda waits to be rated, lectured, slapped, shoved, dragged, kicked—forever the extra in her mother’s extended drama.

What she doesn’t expect is to be held.

And, yes, to be held is comforting, even welcome, but Jacinda doesn’t have time to acknowledge such feelings when she realizes that it’s Annie who holds her, Dot completely gone from the room. Eyes now open, Jacinda is too busy feeling confounded. When did the switch take place? How did it happen? Even in a church, a disappearing Dot feels like too much of a miracle. So Jacinda pulls from Annie and rushes to the door, catching the edge of it as it closes. She eyes both ends of the hallway. She glances over her shoulder, past Annie, and sees the stalls. She searches them quickly. At the third, empty like the others, she steps inside.

A minute to think. She shuts the door, the latch jiggling when she shoves it.

“Um, Jacinda?” Annie sounds forever far away.

“We have to talk,” Jacinda informs her.

“Oh, we’re going to talk. But right now, we’re the stand-ins, remember? The ceremony? It’s bad luck for the real couple to rehearse?”

Jacinda tries to process this, but it makes no sense to her. To gain some time, she fights her clothes and plops onto the toilet. She leans, trying to spy through the little crack of space between the stall door and the stall wall, but nothing takes shape. Maybe the whole world has disappeared, Dot taking it with her.

“But where’d she go?” Jacinda asks.

She hears a faucet turn on. “I sent her away,” Annie says.

“Really?” Jacinda sits up, trying to imagine such a thing. “How?” she asks.

“I pointed, okay? From me to you, from her to the door.”

“That’s it?”

The water shuts off, and Jacinda hears nothing but her own breathing, which she tries to hold. She counts to a hundred before exhaling quickly and sputtering Annie’s name.

“What?” Annie answers, clearly exasperated.

Jacinda flinches. She thinks to apologize and explain. Isn’t that what you do in a church—confess? Confess and feel better? So she tries. She stutters out how sorry she is about the necessary end of their relationship, and how it’s better for Annie, too. Of course it is. And then she talks about having to take care of yourself whether you want to or not, and how that can be even harder when there is somebody around who is supposed to do such a thing, at least every once in a while, and how sometimes, after that person fails, you fail, too, no matter how hard you try, and then sharp coils of doubt lodge in your head and your heart, making you doubly, triply, quadruple-ly careful, making you too hard and too mean, making you absolutely certain that you can never have what you want, what everybody wants.

“I’m a tree,” Jacinda says, which sounds insane. “Like a tree,” she amends.

How else to explain it? Rings, maybe. Tree rings. She remembers Six cutting down all the trees Five ruined with his pruning, as if Six could come into their lives and erase everything that had been done before. Jacinda had expected bands of widening circles across each trunk, each one representing a year. She’d read about them in school. But the rings she saw that day bulged and compressed. In one spot, she found an actual hole, oddly shaped. She stared at that, while Six panted beside her, big and sweaty, the hairiest man she’d ever seen. He explained that you could read everything that had happened, good and bad, throughout a tree’s life.

“But only after you’ve cut it down,” he added. “A little late.”

Jacinda agreed with this line of reasoning, but still wanted to hack off her arm and hand it over, just rip it off and let him read her, too, let him know everything she couldn’t tell him, can’t tell Annie, can only mumble to herself.

She realizes that she has stopped speaking altogether and sits up quickly, feeling helpless as the child she’s intent on being, just another helpless, common little girl. Then she panics. She reaches to slap wildly at the latch, and when the door swings open, she sees no one at first, which makes her fear that she just might cry again.

But then a hand, an arm, a shoulder. That face.

Annie stands there straight-backed and clear-eyed and plainly disappointed.

“Annie,” Jacinda says. She can think of nothing else to say.

“You done?”

Jacinda nods, noting a hard edge to Annie’s jaw that she doesn’t recognize. She closes her eyes as Annie steps into the stall and lifts her, tugging at her pantyhose and straightening her skirt and kissing her forehead, all of it done so tenderly. “You’ll be okay,” Annie assures her. Annie walks Jacinda to the sink, where she pats Jacinda’s cheeks with wet fingertips.

“You know, everybody hurts,” Annie adds.

With that, they stand a moment, silent and close. Then Annie takes Jacinda’s arm and escorts her back into the chapel, where people do seem to be waiting for them to walk down the aisle and take their place before the pastor. Jacinda glances at Jerry, who scratches his butt, at Earl, who holds and comforts Dot, at Pammy, already sitting with a whole new family. Finally, Jacinda looks at Annie, who stops her where they’re supposed to stop, and then takes her hand and holds it. Stand-ins, Jacinda thinks. Something to which bad luck can be allowed to happen. Something pretend. But Annie’s hand in hers is real. And when Annie leans close, Jacinda can smell her. She knows the taste of her, is learning the truth of her.

“Stand up straight,” Annie whispers, and Jacinda lifts her head.

“Trust me?” Annie adds, and Jacinda nods.

“No, I want to hear it. Do you trust me?”

Annie asks, and Jacinda answers. Before God and family, she says, “I do,” only to be startled by the laughter behind her. Jerry cheers. Somebody claps. Jacinda turns to yell, but the pastor pats her arm, saying, “Not yet, not yet,” and then she understands. Once again, she’s jumped to the end when they’ve barely even started.