Fiction · 08/05/2015

The Jacket

Miranda had almost missed the ragged dark-green windbreaker tied to the tree below her window. That Monday morning, when she’d awoken an hour before school started, she’d decided she would do her hair first, and as she finished brushing her hair against her shoulder, smoothing it together in her fist, wrapping it in a hair tie, she caught sight of the jacket, a fluttering reflection in the lowest corner of her mirror.

She lived with her mother in a blue-and-white house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Arvada, a suburb outside Denver. It wasn’t a new neighborhood, but it was near Kipling St. and sometimes people from local bars stumbled across the lawn in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings. The ripped bottom of the jacket rippled. The knot around the branch was a small, tight ball of swishy material. She imagined a drunk removing his windbreaker, looping the frayed and soiled sleeves together and around the bottom-most branch, and then walking away. Whoever had tied it there could have seen her if she had been standing at the window of her second floor room. She had the habit of leaving the blinds open, but no one could have seen anything unless she had been right against the glass.

Miranda folded her arms across her waist and bit her lip. She pulled the cord for the blinds slowly, letting them down, as the nylon string slid and roughened her hand.

+

Miranda watched the boys in her eighth grade class and tried to imagine the penises lurking under their clothes. Once, she had seen one by accident. Last summer, when Miranda’s mother had taken her to the YMCA, she stepped into the wrong locker room and there it was — long, dark, and stemming from a cluster of gray, curly hairs. She stared, held the door open, her freckled feet sopping wet on the turquoise and gray tiles, as the man, who had his eyes closed, ran his fingers through his hair and threw his head back into the shower.

When Miranda found her mother, she grinned as widely as she could. It looked so foreign, and so funny, but dangerous too. Miranda’s mother was lounging in the hot tub.

“I went in the wrong locker room,” Miranda said, sliding one foot into the churning water. She thought about getting in, but the bubbles always seemed to creep inside her and while she sat in it, she would feel her whole body thumping.

Miranda’s mother sunk lower into the water, resting her neck against the rim of the tub. “Did you see anything?”

Miranda grinned at her bright pink toe nails.

Before they left, Miranda jumped feet first into the unheated pool, which was slippery clean, deep and wide. The bottom was painted light blue in the shallow end and navy blue at the deep end. Under water, the bubbles thundered, rushing across her skin to the surface, and her hair felt soft and old. She imagined it flowing around her like a blurry red cloud.

+

In the hall after class, Miranda pulled out her hair tie and combed her fingers through her hair. She leaned against the wall as her best friend Beatrix pulled books from her locker. Beatrix had short blonde hair and breasts that had grown faster than the rest of her body. She constantly stretched over her chair to ease the strain on her back and the jostle of her breasts, like two rolling globs of lava, made everyone stare.

“What do you think about sex?” Beatrix asked.

Miranda had not really been thinking about it, but it did cross her mind, especially as she watched her own breasts grow, stretching into her pasty, freckled skin. She liked to feel them, late at night, and think about Lewis.

“I don’t know,” Miranda said. She felt the tops of her ears burn and looked away. Beatrix shrugged and Miranda tried not to stare.

They sat in the two empty seats in the last row and slid back a little to slouch in the hard plastic. Lewis sat in front of her. He had dark hair and eyes, and she’d had class with him since they were seven years old. For a little while he stared ahead, but then slowly he turned and caught her eyes. Miranda thought her ears would fall off.

Earlier that day, in math, she’d seen him and a few other boys in the far row, giggling quietly behind their hands, their eyes flickering across a wide-ruled, loose-leaf paper spread flat to Lewis’s desk. Lewis had slid one of his greasy, pinkish hands to his crotch.

Lewis tapped his fingers on his desk, and, as the teacher turned to write on the board, held his hand over his head and flung a note backwards onto her desk. Miranda stared at the crisply folded corners of the white and blue-lined paper, the harsh scratching of her name across the center, oblivious to the size or orientation of the lines, the slight moisture left at the edges by a sweaty hand. She held up her book and spread the note flat to the pages: “I saw you watching me in math class. I want you to touch it and hold it. I want you to put it in your mouth.”

Miranda balled the note in her fist. The teacher’s drone paused, but then continued, held in time by the metronomic pacing of his two heavy-heeled shoes. Miranda smoothed out the page and read it again. She felt flush and unsteady, as though if she did not write a response she would never feel right again — she would just feel this queasy sickness boiling in her stomach and traveling, oddly, to the soft, dark place even she had never dared to touch. She uncapped her pen and wrote two letters. Then she balled the note again and chucked it back to Lewis.

He jumped when it scuttled across his desk, but when he opened it, he turned and smiled. And something about that smile — the precision of the teeth that composed it, the curl of the top lip, the wideness of his eyes — made Miranda shiver. But she couldn’t go back now and even if she could, she wouldn’t change her answer.

+

Last Friday after school, Miranda had sat in the front seat of her mother’s car and tried to talk about her father. “I’m going to see him tomorrow,” she said. Miranda and her father had made a plan for their weekend together.

Her mother sighed and turned the wheel as the turn signal snapped in the car. She drove beneath the hanging green leaves of trees that had grown tall over the street.

Her parents had divorced because her father had met someone while traveling. Miranda’s father was an executive for an insurance company and once, when he had been traveling to the corporation headquarters for an annual meeting, he had met a stranger on a plane. Miranda remembered her father leaving as one man and coming back as another. Sometimes, when Miranda visited him now, she would see that other man, that first man who had loved her mother unconditionally, but then she would come into the room where they would be sitting and he would change back to the second man.

“We’re planning a trip to the mountains,” Miranda said.

“Is she coming?” her mother asked, staring at the red light. She didn’t blink or move her hands away from the wheel.

“No,” Miranda said.

“Good.” The light changed and she pushed the gas pedal hard so that the tires purred and chirped. Miranda’s mother slid her hands around the steering wheel and blinked. Just outside her window, Miranda watched a boy and a girl throw a stick to a dog. The dog raced away across the yard, jumping at the last moment to snatch the stick, moist and smooth, from the air.

+

The morning of the trip, Miranda awoke to the sound of the telephone. Listening for her mother to answer, she turned over in her covers and the phones rang two more times before she heard her mother’s steady steps across the kitchen floor.

“Yes. Fine,” her mother said and snapped the phone back.

Miranda opened her door and looked out. Over the banister of the second-floor landing, she saw the top of her mother’s head still staring at the phone with one hand on her hip. When her mother shouted for Miranda to get dressed, Miranda jumped, backing away from the banister.

Forty-five minutes later, Miranda sat on the front porch with a small bag. Those two kids were playing again — hockey in the street — swerving too fast in their rollerblades. Forgetting her stick, the girl dodged for the puck and tripped over the curved end. She landed on her hands, screaming as she fell. The boy lifted his right leg to brake. He knelt beside her.

After the white pick-up truck pulled into Miranda’s drive, they were playing again, not watching as Miranda’s father stepped out of the cab, his keys glittering in the sun. He had dark green eyes and short sandy-blond hair. It was usually combed over to one side, but on the weekends he let it stay ruffled. The stubble over his cheeks and chin shone silver in the sunlight. He wore jeans and a black polo shirt.

As he opened her door and stuffed her bag behind her seat, he asked her if she was ready for the mountains.

“Sure,” she said. She watched the living-room window as her mother pulled back the curtain and waved. Miranda waved back.

“How is she?” he asked, turning the key in the ignition.

Miranda stopped waving because her mother had closed the curtain. “She worries more than she used to,” she said.

Miranda’s father braked, backing out of the drive, and then headed forward.

“You know,” he said as they waited at a red light, “if anything ever goes wrong, or if you or your mom ever need help, you can call me.” He turned to look at Miranda. “I don’t want anything…” he stopped and blinked and then the light changed. “You know that, don’t you Miranda?” he asked.

Miranda nodded, staring straight ahead.

Her father turned the car, but he didn’t drive straight for the interstate. Instead, he told her his girlfriend would be coming with them.

+

After dinner at the cabin — the timeshare that was still under both of her parents’ names — Miranda watched television in her room with the door closed when she heard the door to her father’s room creak open and close. Miranda left her room and stared out into the dark cabin hallway. The light from her room bled over the worn gray carpet, and her father’s door was shut tight, but she heard his girlfriend moaning softly. She reached for the door knob and turned.

When the light hit their faces, she saw something, but then they moved and she wasn’t sure what she had seen. Her father held up his hand against the light, as though it burned his skin, and his girlfriend frowned and slid off the bed. Miranda thought she had seen her father reach for the blanket that was covering his knees and then, for the second time in her life, Miranda saw what else had caught the light behind a door she should not have opened.

“Close it,” her father said thickly. Miranda jumped back and swung the door fast. Outside, an owl softly whooed into the cool night, the deep tremor of its voice long and hollow.

+

In the morning her father made her pancakes in a black griddle.

“Do you want blueberries in your pancakes, sweetie?” he asked.

Miranda frowned. “I hate blueberries.”

Her father nodded, laughed a little. “I forgot,” he said.

Miranda wrapped her hair in the hair tie she had around her wrist and couldn’t think of anything to say. Her plate was chipped.

“Was she giving you a blow job?” she asked.

Her father dropped the spatula and swore. “It — she shouldn’t have been here this weekend.” Even though they weren’t ready, he tried flipping the pancakes, but then scraped the sticky spatula against the edge of the griddle. “Don’t tell your mother,” he said, gripping the spatula and pointing it at her. Then he lowered it and smiled quickly. “Would you like some eggs too? Bacon?”

Miranda stared.

“I can’t remember if you hate eggs,” he said.

+

That Monday, before the end of school, Lewis had passed Miranda another note in class, asking her to meet him behind the gymnasium. Miranda waited there after school, watching the shards of recently cut grass catch the wind and float in clumps across the football field. As Lewis approached, he watched her chest and slid his tongue over his lips. His hands were in his pockets. When he finally stopped, he pulled them out and touched his belt buckle.

Miranda set her backpack on the ground and bent to open it. She pulled the jacket from her bag. “Is this yours?” Miranda opened her hand and the jacket fell to the ground.

Lewis grinned again, as he had before. His teeth seemed too white.

“I think you’re supposed to get on your knees,” he said. His hands hung at his sides. The windbreaker slithered between them. Miranda closed her hand and shifted her weight to one hip. She folded her arms across her chest. Her stomach tightened. The wind picked up again, carrying the sweet moist smell of the grass and Miranda worried about her mother waiting for her in the car.

+++

Jacqueline Kharouf has an MFA in creative writing, fiction, from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Harpoon Review, Matchbook Literary Magazine, Gingerbread House, The Examined Life Journal, Shout Out UK, South Dakota Review, Fiction Vortex, Otis Nebula, NANO Fiction, and Numéro Cinq Magazine. In 2011, she won third place in H.O.W. Journal’s Fiction contest judged by Mary Gaitskill. Jacqueline blogs at jacquelinekharouf.wordpress.com, tweets at @writejacqueline, and hopes you “like” her Facebook page Jacqueline Kharouf, writer..