I only had one friend. Guncha Epstein. Nobody liked Guncha because she was adopted from Turkmenistan and didn’t smile very much. She said Americans smile too easily and that smiling so much is crass in a world with so much suffering. She talked about her Turkmen people a lot, how they kicked out the Peace Corps because they thought they were all spies and how there’s a giant fire in the ground that burns nonstop and how on National Women’s Day every woman gets $14 from the government and how they built beautiful hotels on the Caspian Sea that are empty because it’s too hard for anyone to get into Turkmenistan for a vacation.
Guncha was always eating plastic bowls of borscht at lunch, which is why nobody wanted to share our table. She had the periodic table of elements memorized for no reason. She wore yellow clogs every day, for no reason. When we had to pick a house to go to, I always pushed for mine because her house smelled like Borscht and her parents played classical music through their stereo system that spilled into every room so that even in the bathroom, there was a piano tinkling, making you feel stupid for not liking Borscht and opera and suffering.
Guncha said that my mother represented everything bad about America: shallow, backstabbing, dramatic, talks too much, says the wrong things to the wrong people and lacks the courage to live an honest life and she should grow up and stop acting like life is a reality TV show and be an adult. My mother didn’t like Guncha. She said she represented everything wrong about kids today: too serious, too isolated, too weird, she should get outside and play in the street and maybe she’d lose some of that baby fat, too full of random facts about Turkey — no Mom it’s Turkmenistan — and nitrates, she should be a kid.
Liv was the closest thing my mom had to a Guncha, a true friend. I never actually met Liv because Liv’s really busy. But my mom talked to her every night and I was always relieved to hear her talking to Liv because it meant she’d be happy when she hung up. Talking to her other friends was different. She’d hang up and bitch about this one being narcissistic or that one having no clue about men. But Mom never bitched about Liv.
“That’s her only true friend,” Guncha said.
Guncha said in Turkmenistan you don’t have time for fake friends. She always left my house when my mom started talking smack about her friends. I would be mad at Guncha for being so judgmental and then mad at my mom for being so two-faced and then mad at my world for being so small and then mad at myself for building such a small world. But my mom was my mom. She could be sweet. When she tore recipes out of magazines and tried to make them she got all excited. She had hope. She had me. They could both be terrible in the same way. Guncha would be in the living room wanting to watch a movie and my mom would be in the kichen wanting us to come eat cookies. And neither would give in. Mom would not bring the cookies into the living room and Guncha would not be the kind of guest who hit pause and walked into the kitchen and ate a cookie. I was always the one that had to choose . You can’t be stubborn when you’re stuck in the middle. Just the same, I knew if I ever had to pick between them, I would choose Mom.. Guncha was a survivor. She was like borscht, pungent, cold with an expiration date a million years away.She couldn’t need you the way Mom could.
We live near Simi Valley so that’s why we got hit right away. It started with a voicemail on Mom’s cell:
You think you can talk all that shit about me behind my back? Well fuck you, Jenny Brown. Fuck you hard and fuck you forever you liar. You witch.
That was how the war began in our house. It wasn’t on TV yet. It wasn’t on the Internet. Guncha didn’t even know about it. The calls kept coming that day and Mom turned off her phone so she wouldn’t have to hear it ring.
“One of her friends probably hacked her phone,” said Guncha.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I have a bad feeling.”
“Your mom is a horrible person and this is what happens to horrible people.”
“She’s not horrible. And how do her friends know all this all of the sudden?”
“She doesn’t even like her own friends.”
“She likes them, she just gets annoyed.”
“Yeah and she doesn’t have the courage to say it to their faces.”
Night had fallen. My mom hadn’t made anything for dinner. I was hungry. I hated Guncha. I sided with my mom.
“I’m gonna make pizza.”
“Are you mad at me?”
“No, Guncha. I’m just tired.”
“Don’t forget. This couldn’t happen to her if she hadn’t said all those horrible things in the first place. She made her bed.”
I didn’t wanna cry on the phone. “I gotta go.”
The next morning the war was everywhere. The terrorists had been recording conversations and saving text messages for months. Now they were using the missives to encourage American women to kill each other. A man with a blurry face and a computer voice stared into the camera.
“You will eat each other. Your people are a false people. You backstab. Now begins the Frontal Stab.”
On the news at first they acted like it was a joke or something. Some people said that teenagers made the video. Some experts said that this was a hoax. But most of the time they all just talked about the leaked voicemails, the violence. There were funny videos on YouTube where they spliced in parts of conversations — YOU BITTER UGLY WHORE — into the song “That’s what Friends are For” or Friends photos.
We were a week into the attack when I wondered about Liv and asked my mom where she was, how she was. My mom shrugged it off and tried to change the subject.
“She’s home. Like everyone.”
My mom wouldn’t look at me and I started in again.
“Mom, seriously. I bet Liv could come over. She’s still your friend.”
“I’m sure she’s busy.”
“How do you know?”
Our new world was so quiet. The only noise was from the TV. I missed the way it used to be. My mom was silent and lazy now and maybe her friends had a point. I was starting to think that Guncha was right. I didn’t want that to be true. I hated war. Not that anyone loved it, but I saw families on TV that seemed to make the best of it, families that were camping, roasting marshmallows and watching marathons of TV shows, big fat families with lots of cousins who loved each other and said how horrible it was to learn about all the people in this country who are disloyal, who don’t know from love. There was one guy who really bugged me. He had four kids by three different women and he lived in a farmhouse with a lot of land but no crops. He chewed on a blade of grass.
“I see them people in Chicago, in California,” he said. “The things they say about each other behind their backs? Their whole lives are lies. That’s not America. That ain’t my America. The terrorists can have those BLEEPS.”
It was another bleak night and we were on the couch and I knew I shouldn’t but I started in about Liv again. Mom jabbed at the buttons on the remote.
“Forget about Liv.”
“But why? She’s your best friend.”
She turned up the volume of the terrorists on TV. The war was uncivil, Jerry Springer. All over America, women were murdering each other and my mom and I were no different than most families, smaller maybe, just the two of us sitting on the couch behind boarded up windows listening to sirens outside, wondering when someone who try to kill us. There were so many ways to kill people and women were poisoning cups of coffee, they were shooting their friends, they were stabbing them and one woman even ran down her sister in a grocery store parking lot with an SUV. Another woman in Texas forced her mother into a freezer and stood there and watched her scream for mercy and freeze to death. One whole book club was blown to bits in St Louis, Missouri.
“Have you heard from Guncha?”
“Busy doing what?”
My mom huffed. I think she missed Guncha.
It was six weeks into the war when someone threw a cherry bomb at our front window. It wasn’t bad compared to what was happening to other people. The world was a new place every day, smaller. I was still harping on my mom to call Liv. I had put it all on Liv and Mom was still sniping about Guncha. I really believed that we would be happy and above the war if we could just see Liv. You do weird things in war. You get obsessed and I was begging again, “We have to go to Liv’s.”
Mom was trying to board up the window. She was terrible with hammers, with nails. Our living room was a sea of glass. The window was everywhere and everything was wrong. I wanted to tell someone about this but I couldn’t call Guncha. The phones didn’t even work anymore. That was how America was trying to fight. Just get people to stop interacting. There were curfews in effect. The phones were shut down. They figured if they could keep us from being near each other then maybe we would stop killing each other.
My art teacher had just been killed at a gallery downtown. All she was doing was standing there looking at a painting and one of her friends from art school shot her. See, the murderer was a professional artist. And she found out that my teacher thought she had no talent. My teacher, it turned out, hated teaching because teaching meant that she wasn’t talented enough to be famous, like her friend. I was surprised because my art teacher always seemed really happy, like she liked teaching. Maybe she liked it when she was doing it but hated it once she got home. Maybe it was like eating a whole bag of chips and it felt good in the moment but then after not so much. The terrorists had the TV now so they were airing random recordings every night. That’s how I learned about my art teacher.
“We’re not moving in with Liv. Get me that nail.”
“Why can’t we just drive over there and see if she’s okay?”
“Because she’s fine.”
“I want to meet her.”
I pictured Liv. I didn’t know if she had dark hair or light hair.
“If she’s fine then she would want us to come. It’s not safe here.”
“So, let’s make it safe.”
I hated my mother. Why couldn’t we move to Liv’s? Liv lived in a condo, which always seemed cool to me. We would pass Guncha’s house if we got in the car and drove to Liv’s and I would know if she was alive, if they were boarded up like us or if they’d fled. Everyone we know lives in houses, Guncha included. But Liv was twenty-four floors above everything and that fact alone made her place seem like a safe place. You couldn’t cherry bomb something in the sky. I had never met Liv. But she sounded like the most patient, wonderful friend in the world. She always listened to my mom. She never got mad. She had an endless appetite for all things my mom. And she sounded like she was a good cook too, like she’d be better at making broccoli not turn to goop.
“Where’s Liv’s condo?”
“How do you know Liv lives in a condo?”
“Because I heard you say it once.”
On TV, the President was making another speech about forgiveness. He said we would not be able to forgive each other and continue with our personal lives until we, as a nation, could beg for forgiveness from our friends overseas. He talked funny now, like he didn’t quite understand what he was saying. He had black marks on his face.
“What’s Liv’s last name?” I said. I was the war now. I was revolution. The sight of the president on TV, the crunch of the window under my feet, the crappy terrorist issued TV dinners in the freezer, the idea of another boring day of wartime, hiding in the basement playing Monopoly with my mother. No, I said. I was going to Liv’s. I wanted to be twenty-four stories above the earth and eat fresh broccoli and I wasn’t waiting anymore.
“Anastasia, stop it and get the vacuum.”
“No,” I said.
“Don’t push me. We need to get this fixed before it gets dark.”
“No, “ I said and I crossed my arms. If the terrorists could do it so could I!
She threw her hammer at the wall. It made a dent. I kept my arms crossed. A helicopter chopped through the sky. That happened now, a lot.
“Anastasia, you don’t understand. We can’t move to Liv’s.”
“But she’s your best friend.”
“Liv is not my best friend.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Honey,” she breathed. “Livingston Matthews is my boyfriend, he’s Liv for short. And he has a wife and a family and there’s no way we can move in with him.”
I walked out of there right away. I wanted to get the vacuum. I never wanted to vacuum so badly in my life. I wanted to be deaf. I wanted to not wish that I could tell Guncha. I wanted to un-know what I knew and after my dad died I just figured my mom decided she was done with dating. She wasn’t ever into anyone. She never talked about guys to her friends. I just thought sometimes you lose interest in something the way I never wanted to play Red Rover anymore even though that used to be my favorite game in the world, the way I filled pages in my diary about Paul Beasley and now saw him and felt nothing. Things change. People change. I dragged the vacuum into the living room.
“I hate war,” I said.
“You and me both.”
“Hang on.” She was untangling the vacuum cord. I was picturing Livingston in an apron on the deck of his condo cooking broccoli and parsnips on the grill. They smelled so good in my imagination. Then I realized how dumb I was being. Livingston probably didn’t cook that stuff in his condo. Guys that cheat have secret places for that. Livingston probably lived in a house like ours.
“Do you ever say bad stuff about me?”
“Oh please, my peaches. You don’t need to ask me that. You’re my sweet girl.”
“But you say bad stuff about everyone else.”
“Because you’re not an asshole, honey.”
It was the biggest laugh we’d had since the war started and it was the last time I saw my mother alive. Liv’s wife came that night, got into the house in the back, through the bulkhead door. She got my mom with a handgun. My mom was sleeping so at least she didn’t have pain.
I packed a bag and took the gun that Liv’s wife left behind and walked to Guncha’s and when I got there I knocked on the door and waited a few minutes before Guncha came to the door. She still smelled like Borscht.
“They got your mom?” she said.
“That figures,” Guncha said. “All that backstabbing.”
“It wasn’t one of her friends.”
“Then who was it?”
I didn’t want to tell her that my mom was having an affair. I hear her mother call Anastasia, make sure you leave your shoes at the front door, I just vacuumed and I didn’t want to go in there where there was matzoh and a working alarm system and bowls of Borscht and her married adoptive parents who never fought but always argued, discussed politics of Turkmenistan or Guncha’s progress with learning Hebrew. So I left.
There was enough light in the sky that I knew I’d make it to Main Street and back home before lights out. That was the upside of helicopters and war and I smiled.