Rafael had been in town for about a week. He was putting the trim on the new house that was going up in the middle of Dooley’s old apple orchard. That house was the most monumental thing to hit our town since my sisters and I were babies. It jutted up out of the flat, green landscape like something triumphant. It wasn’t shaped like a regular house, but had odd turns and bends to it that made me think of knees and joints. It looked like it could get up and walk; hell, it looked like it would chase me down Route 52, and I often looked in my rearview mirror, expecting to see that house jiggling with exertion, waving its eaves and shouting. “Watch out! Watch out!”
My mother thought it was outrageous that the house was so big. “Why does he need so much space?” she’d say. “What is he going to do in it?” But then the word came around town that the owner was building it because he was dying, that he wanted to secure a place for his daughter to live, and that he was drawn to the peacefulness of the area. Mother was dying herself, though so slowly that anyone else might have just said she was living out her life.
She liked me to park across from that house, so that she could absorb it. Sometimes I would lift her out of the car and set her down under one of the old apple trees. She would look at the house curiously. “Look at that window, Alicia,” she’d say. “Good luck trying to clean that.” Look at that house, I wanted to say to her; some people do things even when they know they’re going to die.
Angela met Rafael at the Eagle’s Nest Bar & Grill last Thursday night. She walked in, as she usually did, around 7 o'clock, around the same time the auto parts plant shift got out, which increased her odds. She noticed Rafael, which was easy enough, since he was the one man there she did not know. She told me later that he was staring at one of the pictures of us that hang on the walls. The whole bar is filled with pictures of us, the Dorsey Triplets, though all the pictures date from at least twenty years ago.
There we are, again and again, three bucktoothed girls in matching outfits. “The Dorsey Triplets” on the fire truck at the Memorial Day parade; “The Dorsey Triplets” at the Dutchess County Fair, standing in the booth which was right next to Dooley’s cow, which was marked for butchering. Mr. Dooley was a soft touch and it was always the same cow that he showed, older and older. The cow actually outlasted us, because my mother got into a fight with the coordinators of the fair and they kicked us triplets out.
Back then, my mother sewed all of our clothes herself; in those golden days her fingers flew like fiddles over the fabric. She was healthy and happy. She'd whip up three dresses in an afternoon and then she’d sew a larger version of the dress for herself, always with a low-cut blouse. She felt that bearing triplets made her more of a woman than anyone around, and she liked to show off her equipment. She was particularly proud that she had breast-fed all of us. Once, years later, I asked her about that. Didn’t that mean one of us was always waiting? But she just looked at me, irritated, as though there were something in my very demeanor that was an affront, and said, “Well, it doesn’t look like it hurt you any, Alicia.”
Rafael was looking at the picture of our kindergarten graduation when Angela first saw him. That happened to be my favorite picture. Amanda and Angela are standing in our regular triplet pose, arm around each other and head thrown back, but I am standing a little apart, looking seriously at something that is in the distance. I look so wise, for a five-year-old. Angela said he was smiling at the picture and she went right up to him.
For a long time, people have called Angela a slut, but then people always were trying to label us. I think when you’re a triplet people look for words to separate you, they pin any label they can on you. My sister Amanda is considered the princess because she’s been married for three years but doesn’t have children. I was considered the smart one, up until the day I dropped out of college, and then I was considered the good one, because I dropped out to take care of my mother. I don’t know what they call me now.
Yes, Angela was called the slut, though I think really she just suffered from a want of imagination. For so many years people had been staring at our bodies and touching them, smelling them, that I think it didn’t occur to her that she could use a different part of herself to interact with people—such as her mind.
Anyway, Angela saw him smiling at her picture and she sat down and said to him, “Nice picture.” She told me later that he looked like he was going to have a heart attack. He hugged her as though they were cousins, and said he had no idea, he had no idea. I wondered what that was like for him, to want something and have it walk right up to you and sit down.
Angela called me up late that night, after eleven. “Alicia?” she said, when I picked up the phone, which annoyed me right off the bat, because who else was going to pick up the phone. “How’s mom?” she asked.
“Fine. You want to talk to her?” Mom was sitting only about three feet away from me, staring at the phone with the sort of wobbly and hesitating look a turkey should have on the day before Thanksgiving. The TV bathed her in an unhealthy glow.
“No,” Angela said, laughing. “But thanks.” I could hear pinballs in the background and I told her I knew she was at the Motel 8.
“How’d you know?” Everyone thought I was such a genius, just because I paid attention. I didn’t even bother to answer her.
“He’s kind of funky,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he has this thing about triplets. Like, he thinks we’re really sexy.”
She started giggling and I knew that nothing I had said had tickled her. I found myself staring at the business cards on the wall of my mother’s various doctors, and at the map of the gravesite where my father was buried and where she would be buried, in time.
“He’d like to meet you.”
My mom was saying, “What? What?” and I knew she meant to be whispering, but she had a sinus infection and couldn’t hear how loud her voice was. I shushed at her and looked at the phone. “What are you saying?”
“I know it sounds crazy. But remember that time with Jimmy D, how cool it was.”
“I slept with him because I loved him. I didn’t know you guys were going to trick him.”
“Oh come on. You thought it was funny.”
“I was fifteen then. I was a moron. I grew out of it.”
Angela started clicking her tongue. “Oh, I forgot. You’re better than we are.”
“Because I’m discriminating.”
“Discriminating,” she said. “What’s wrong with you? Look, Amanda's already been here and gone. I'll get her to call you.”
Suddenly she breathed in really fast and a man’s voice was on the phone. “You have a sexy voice, Alicia,” he said.
“You’re sick,” I said back.
“Meet me at the Eagle’s Nest,” he said. “I’ll wait for you.” He hung up the phone then, and I sat and listened to the dial tone for about a minute.
“Do you have a date?” my mom asked me.
She was wearing a cute little scarf that looked like a dachshund around her neck and her black shoes gleamed. She always looked like she could go to a party, which I guess was a good way to live. I had on my Tweety Bird night shirt. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
“I thought I heard a man’s voice.”
She looked so worried. She was so scared to die. That’s what always got me. “I’m not leaving you, mom. Don’t worry.”
“I’m ruining your life,” she said, starting to cry.
“Yes you are,” I said, sitting next to her. “But that’s all right.” And it was all right, I thought. You’re supposed to ruin your life for the people you love. But the sound of Rafael’s voice seemed to keep whispering in my ear.
Mom stayed up later than usual that night. She’s like a dog that way, she picks up on my mood. I finally mashed up a little Valium and stuck it in her scotch. She fell asleep pretty quickly after that, and I got her in her nightgown and tucked her in. Funny how beautiful she still was. There is an aura around things that are beautiful, I think, and even when the beauty fades, the aura remains—that’s why people go to see ruins, I suppose.
I sat in my room then, looking out the window at Route 52, which cuts like a zipper in front of our house. There’s not much traffic on Route 52, even if it is a highway. The traffic comes sporadically: a fruit truck, a moving van, a U-haul. I used to wonder if that interrupted flow of traffic had stunted our lives. Did it make us spend too much time listening? Always expecting something from far away? If we had lived at the end of a dirt road, maybe we would all have been more content.
It’s amazing how strongly a bad idea can grab hold of you. I didn’t want to meet Rafael. I really did not want to set foot in the Eagle’s Nest Bar & Grill, which I had successfully avoided doing for almost five years. But I felt a pull even so. Maybe it was knowing he wanted me. There’s something very appealing about being wanted, which I suppose is why people join the army. Or maybe I just was tired of spending night after night with my mother.
The Eagle’s Nest Bar and Grill sits at the south corner of the Cruikshank strip mall. There's a Dunkin’ Donuts, a laundromat and a vacant party store which closed down several years ago. The fire station is catty corner to the bar, and there's an auditorium there which can be rented out for special occasions. That was where my sisters threw a party for me on the day before I left town to go to college. My mother was still healthy then, though she had a cough. The whole town thought I was some type of genius, because I’d gotten a scholarship. Some of them persist in calling me “Doctor.”
There were still some of the party balloons hanging two months later when I dropped out. My mother had called me from the emergency room, right before my Calculus 101 midterm. She was doing fine and I shouldn’t worry, but the doctors had found a spot on her lung that was the size of an egg and she would probably be dead in a year. I dropped out the next day. I was happy to. I figured I could go back to college after she was dead. I didn’t think it was going to ruin my life or anything. In those days I figured that destiny would find me wherever I was; it didn't even occur to me that I had to search it out.
I went into the bar. “It’ll be easy,” Amanda had said. “He’s very sympathetic.” She called me two minutes after Angela, after she'd got home from the same motel. “I know,” she’d said. “I’m really surprised at myself.” I could see her in my mind. She’d probably pulled her hair up and put on a lot of make-up. Painted her nails silver. “My life’s gotten so boring, Alicia. I needed this for me. I think it will make our marriage healthier over the long term. Sometimes you have to do something for yourself.”
At the bar, Rafael was sitting at the biggest table in the bar. “Rafael?” I asked, in a voice that sounded funny to me.
“Alicia,” he said. There was something elastic about his face, as though it had been run over once and healed. Why did I find that arousing? “Your sisters were so sure you wouldn’t come. They gave me no hope.” He was actually rubbing his hands together.
“I’m not sure why I’m here,” I said. “I’m not going to sleep with you.”
I heard a sniggering sound behind me and I turned to see Candy Link occupying the corner booth. When she met my eyes, her mouth dropped open as though she’d never seen me before, and I thought she might even have looked afraid. I supposed it was because it had been a long time since I’d been out. Probably since around the time my mother went on oxygen and it got just so damn hard to leave. I realized then that I still had on my Tweety Bird shirt and the tight green pants that made my legs look like drumsticks.
“What?” I said to Candy.
“Nothing,” she answered, crossing her stiletto heels under the table.
“Good,” I said.
Rafael was still standing, panting, wringing his hands. I had a feeling he was going to smile all night long, no matter what happened. I started to sit down, but he put out his hand like a policeman and said, “Stop.” I didn’t need to ask why. I was used to it. He wanted to look at me. I stood still then, figured there was no harm to letting him suck me up, everybody else had. My whole life had been one giant stage show. People would drive for hours just to get our autographs.
“You’re beautiful,” Rafael said. “You are the most beautiful.”
“That’s what you said to Amanda.”
“You talked to her about me. What did she tell you?”
I considered telling him what Amanda had said on the phone; that he was the best thing that had happened to her in a long time, that he had taught her so much, so quickly. I decided against it. “She said you were nice,” I said, doing my Amanda impression, which sounds as though she has a bell in her mouth, but I figured Rafael probably hadn’t talked with her enough to get it.
I sat down next to him. I looked around the bar, which looked about the same as it always had. Some guy was singing country on the radio and he was singing something that sounded a lot like the thing some other guy been singing last time I was there. There were still pictures of us all over the bar, though I noticed there were a few new ones of definite non-triplets. Jimmy D’s eagle was still there in the window—he claimed that he’d found the eagle on the doorstep on the very day he intended to name the bar.
Rafael had discreetly put his hand between my legs, with the nonchalant manner of a man inserting paper into an envelope. I was disappointed by his height, but that was sort of comforting also—I knew I could knock him out if I had to. But he was so happy that I was there that it made him look innocent. Everything seemed topsy-turvey, as though he were the dewy bride and I the jaded groom. Rafael pulled me against his shoulder and I breathed in the smell of him, which was ripe with sawdust, and I found myself thinking of what the pharmacist had said about him, that he was working on the house single-handedly, lifting up doors by himself, carrying two banisters in at the same time. I laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“This is crazy. You’re crazy,” I said, a little more loudly than I meant to, because I noticed then that Jimmy D and Candy and even little Geneva Helms were all looking at me.
Rafael turned very serious. “I grew up the oldest of fourteen,” Rafael said. “Do you know what that’s like? In a poor town in Mexico?” He waved his hand to take in all of the Eagle’s Nest Bar and Grill, which did not exactly seem to me like the cornucopia of plenty, though I got his point. “Here you have everything: cable TV, snacks, private bathrooms. We had nothing.” Here his voice softened. “There was a mountain range there. Popactectel. Three mountains, broad at the waist with tiny little titties on top. I stared at those mountains day after day until it seemed to me that they spoke to me, until it seemed to me that they made love to me. My mother had fourteen children and then she died. Can you imagine? The only thing that kept me going was those mountains.”
I understood him more than he realized, because I had spent a fair amount of time staring at distances myself. I remembered how I used to stare out at Orion every night, dainty Orion with his thin little wrist and heavy belt. I would watch him and be absolutely sure that he was staring in my direction, talking to me. I would turn out all the lights in my room and open the window, so that he could come into me and sometimes he did, or so it felt. I thought he was a knight and I was a lady, and that I would live an extraordinary life someday, maybe not with him exactly, but with someone like him.
I noticed that Rafael was squeezing my hand like it was a pump and then I started to realized he was squeezing it with the same rhythm of his heartbeat, trying to make me his.
“You probably have a wife back in Mexico, right?”
“Guys with fantasies usually have someone at home. Women with fantasies usually don’t.”
He shrugged. He took out a little comb and smoothed back his hair. I noticed his hands were shaking a little, which surprised me. “I can make you happy,” he said.
I laughed and the sound came out of me like something biological, like something you should apologize for. “I don’t think so,” I said.
Rafael grabbed onto the table as though it were a ledge, and a pool of tears filled his eyes. I’d finished off my drink by then, not that I felt it. I’d found that no matter how much I drank I was sober, sober, sober and then I’d fall asleep. I knew I should probably go home; that’s where I belonged, really. At least when I was with my mother I knew I was doing something important, even if it was driving me crazy. But I couldn’t bring myself to go. I felt like if I went home, I’d never leave again, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready for that yet.
“You’re so different from your sisters,” he said.
“I know. My mother used to say I was adopted.”
“It was a joke.”
“I actually am different,” I said. “I have a scar on my nose from when I fell off a bicycle when I was ten. Once I had that scar, everyone could figure out who I was. My mother figured it out. She’d say, ‘Oh Alicia, you stay with me. You can help me.’ You see, before then she wasn’t always sure, and she would have been embarrassed to be wrong.”
“You know your sister, the quiet one.”
“Her name is Amanda,” I said.
“Amanda.” He nodded. “She came right to my hotel. Just like that. She said she’d just had a fight with her husband; he’d told her she was getting old. Could I make her feel better? She was so warm. Even better than the other one, for all her tricks—Angela was hot. I was figuring you’d all be the same, triplets.”
A car went down Route 52 and its headlights swept through the bar. I noticed that the place had grown more crowded. There were a number of people from my high school class, also a number of my mother’s friends. I hadn’t seen them for years but they all looked the same. They were laughing, talking. They seemed so happy.
Just then Rafael put his hand back between my legs. I guess he had only a certain number of plans of attack, but I found myself pleased that he would try again, that he hadn’t given up. I didn’t move. I didn’t look at him. I didn’t know what to do.
Jimmy D came over then with a drink on a tray. He looked good. He’d proposed to me once, a long time ago, in a car, up at the Ledge, in a night that smelled of wet grass and gasoline. I had actually laughed at his proposal, something I still felt badly about. It’s just that he was so different than what I was expecting. I told him I was hoping to marry someone who was more like Orion, which was, though a lame thing to say, honest. He married Carol Chanson a few months later, but the town never forgot that I thought I was too good for Jimmy D.
“How’ve you been?” he asked.
I shrugged. “You know.”
“Good to see you.”
Rafael had put his arm around my shoulder as soon as Jimmy D came over, and he was squeezing me to him as though we were teenagers on a date. He had a big ring on his finger, like the type you get when you join something or graduate, and the ring glistened against my shoulder as though I too might be something of value.
“You’re in love with him,” Rafael whispered, after Jimmy D left.
“No.” I laughed at the thought.
“Well, he’s in love with you.”
“You see love everywhere,” I said. He was still staring at Jimmy D and hanging onto me. He reminded me of my niece at Christmas, hanging onto her favorite toy for dear life. I was starting to feel the way I felt when I was driving on Route 52 and hit a bank of ice and the only thing to do was ride it out, braking did no good, all you could do was skid and pray you didn’t hit a tree. Rafael kissed me and I kissed him back and his breath smelled of meat and I remembered that Angela had said he told her he loved to eat meat patties. I heard Candy Link’s chair scratch and heard her walk back to the bar. I found my body responding in spite of myself. It had been so long. I’d held myself apart for so long.
Rafael was running his hand over my hair and his touch felt so gentle. I closed my eyes because I knew everybody in the bar was staring at me. They would be talking about this for weeks. They would be laughing about it, because I knew that’s what I had become, a joke.
“I don’t want to be a number,” I said to Rafael. “I don’t want to think of you in the next town saying, I did it with triplets.”
He kissed the scar on my nose. “Let’s go,” he said.
“I can’t,” I said. I started to cry a little, but I sagged against him and he supported me.
“Yes, you can. That’s why you came here tonight.”
He stood up and I stood up with him. We walked together to the door, he holding me up by the elbow, and I saw that Candy Link was smiling a little. At me? For me? The picture by the door was of my sisters on Halloween, three pretty girls dressed up as royalty. Jimmy D was wiping off the bar-top and he stared at me with concern, but I turned away.
We stepped outside and immediately the constellations sprung up in front of us, as though someone had turned on a switch. They were so beautiful, like millions of earrings thrown up into the sky by a careless hand. At the same time I was wary of looking at them. I turned back to look at Rafael, and I gasped, because there he was; there he stood on his small feet, with his heavy belt, bathed in yellow light from the bar—Orion made flesh. Or close enough.
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