Veronica called him Mr. Deal from the moment he trailed Jane (your mother had ceased to be “Mom” in conversations between you and your sister -- a curious phenomena that occurred when Veronica turned sixteen and stopped censoring anything that came out of her mouth -- and became Jane instead. “Trust me,” Veronica told you, and of course you did. “First names are better.”) into your old apartment and remarked on her ‘stunning children’, but his actual name was Robert Warner. He had been dating your mom for six weeks when he asked if you’d all like to move in with him.
Veronica laughed (“I told you,” she mouthed at you across the table), Jane said yes, and you ended up in Blandon, which was more of a neighborhood than a town, straddling the border between New York and Pennsylvania and between suburbia and backwoods.
That was one year and three months ago.
From the open door of your bedroom, you could see halfway into Veronica’s room. She hauled two large suitcases out from under her bed, and, with the resigned ease and precision of someone who had moved in this exact way more than a few times before, began scooping clothes from her drawers and into the open luggage.
“C’mon, Babe-o,” she said without looking up or slowing down. “We gotta get going.”
Most of the time, it seemed to you Veronica operated only on levels of heightened extreme; no matter what her attitude or mood happened to be, she gave it her full and complete attention.
Here, though, she was nearly robotic – your sister would have been far more recognizable if she had been setting fire to the house. You thought you would have hated him less if she did.
Packing your own room was a blur. Veronica, still single-minded in her industry, came in to help when she had finished.
“Do you want her?” she asked, pointing to the only poster on your bare walls. It was of a soccer player whose name you couldn’t correctly pronounce, given to you by your mother after she told you about the Blandon summer league.
It looked large and out of place – a splash of violent color against the plain, storage-facility cream of your walls, and you liked the idea of leaving it up in the austere emptiness.
“A year, Veronica. I spent a year with that man. I slept with him for a year.”
From your position, wedged in the backseat of the car with a large cardboard box (filled with…what? Old records? Kitchen supplies? Bedding? You recognized that you had no concept of what the three of you actually owned and what your mother and Veronica had stolen in your hazy exodus) digging into your left side, your head pressed against the unforgiving window, you watched Jane (your mother. Jane. Your mother. You tried, but you still had trouble maintaining both the separation and the connection between the two) unravel at the wheel, pounding on it with her fragile fists.
“He’s a fucking tool, Mom.” Veronica was back, embracing her current role as emotionally detached and bluntly wise beyond her years. It was one she performed particularly well – legs resting against the dashboard, head cradled between the window and the corner of her seat, she appraised Jane from the corners of her eyes, safe behind the pretense of staring blankly through the windshield. The only thing missing was a cigarette hanging loosely between her fingers, and that was because Jane didn’t let Veronica smoke in the car. She tried forbidding her from smoking at all, but when it came to your mother and Veronica, most arguments ended in lopsided compromise.
“He was probably jerking off in the bushes, watching us run away,” Veronica added. You shifted in the backseat at that, nudging the box next to you as though it was the problem, but really, you were still getting accustomed to hearing things you probably weren’t supposed to know the meanings of in front of your mother. It was slightly uncomfortable and secretly a little thrilling.
“So you woke up this morning, Mr. Deal was gone and the house was for sale?” Veronica’s sparse but bitingly precise summary of the day’s events hung, heavy and ridiculous, in the processed air of the silent vehicle until Jane sighed and shrugged.
“You know things weren’t perfect with me and Robert. He talked about moving, and I told him, I said, the schools are good here, the girls are making friends, Avery’s starting soccer, it’s safe – we’re not leaving.”
Making friends floated out at you from your mother’s list, embedding itself in your conscious. You weren’t sure successfully remembering the name of the goalie on your soccer team (after five Saturdays) quite qualified as ‘making friends’.
Glancing over her shoulder at you, squeezed in next to the stacks of boxes and suitcases crammed into the backseat of the car, Veronica raised an eyebrow. “Right.”
“What?” your sister challenged, pulling her legs down from the dashboard and focusing herself on Jane. She could be so terrifying, especially when she was certain she was right about something. Veronica was never more deadly accurate than in her brutal analysis of Jane’s relationships. “You were using him and he figured it out,” she explicated, pointedly, when your mother, her own eyes burning into the road stretched out in front of you, refused to take Veronica’s bait.
“That’s not your place,” Jane replied, in a wounded tone. You wondered if it would work again – your mother, hurt and vulnerable, was one of Veronica’s only weaknesses.
“Not my place? You have absolutely got to be fucking kidding me right now, Mom.”
And there was your answer. There were always exceptions, and you saw immediately that Veronica would not be easy to derail. Not this time.
“Personally, I can’t believe it took him this long to wake up. You can barely stand to look at him, Mom, it’s so totally obvious he repulses you. Not that I blame you, because I can barely stand to look at him, but—”
“Veronica, please. I don’t need my daughter to tell me what a giant fuck-up I am right now, okay?”
“The most attractive thing – the only attractive thing – about Mr. Deal was the thousand dollars a week he stashed in his underwear drawer. You know it, I know it, Babe-o back there won’t say a word, but she knows it, and now he knows it, too.”
With that, Veronica settled into her seat again.
Swallowing hard against the undulating tension that manifested itself as stillness (a lie, you were discovering. Stillness was always a lie) in the front of the car, you turned your forehead against the glass and let your eyes glaze to unfocused. You caught, then, snatches of color, shape, and motion instead of arduous, concrete detail – broad strokes of shaky green, trapped between smeared pentagons of tan, white, gray, rolling over one another and pierced, occasionally, with a shot of red or yellow.
You hadn’t, in fact, been aware that Robert stashed any amount of money in his underwear drawer, but it didn’t surprise you that Veronica had been. Most of what you knew about Robert, about your mother – about Jane – about, really, everything with even a hint of significance came to you filtered (or, more recently, unfiltered) through Veronica’s conscious.
“She’s fucking him,” she had revealed to you one night, back in your old apartment, worrying one of her long fingers deep into her scalp and glaring at the closed door of the bedroom the two of you shared. “Jane is fucking Mr. Deal.”
You could only stare at her in a state of dumb awe. This was Veronica approaching sixteen, this was Veronica loosening the fetters of language and names and meaning, of appropriate and inappropriate. This was Veronica, closing the distance between her fifteen and your eleven, and, most frighteningly, this was Veronica challenging you.
In one of the only moments you could remember being proud of yourself, you lifted your head and followed her gaze to the door.
“How do you know?” you had asked, throwing the challenge right back.
She had smiled at you then – a real smile, despite the fact that she was right because she had been there before – smiled at you because even though your mother was in the next room destroying the delicate life the three of you had precariously set up for yourselves, this time, at least, neither of you would be alone.
“Shit. I need gas,” Jane announced, her words reverberating like an echo in the car’s suspended silence, and you fell through yourself, back to the reality of the glass numbing your forehead, back to the slightly stale odor of dried sweat mixed with grass and mud and deodorant emanating from the soccer uniform you were still wearing, back to the sharp corner of the cardboard box rubbing raw against your side.
“Jesus, it’s only noon?” Veronica yawned, rubbing her eyes. “I feel like we’ve been driving for days.” She swiveled in her seat, offering you a smile. “How you doing, Babe-o? God, you’re twisted like a fucking pretzel back there, huh?” She flopped back into her seat, frowning. “Babe-o’s twisted like a fucking pretzel back there,” she informed your mother. “I told you we didn’t need to take Mr. Deal’s entire entertainment system. Your flesh and blood is suffering because you are a greedy, greedy person. How do you feel about that? Hmm? Mother?” Veronica folded her arms across her chest, and her voice quivered with the smile she was biting back.
“If I remember correctly, you were helping me carry it out of the house,” Jane volleyed back, not bothering to conceal her own grin. She met your eyes in the rear view mirror. “I’m sorry, sweetie. We’ll stop as soon as we can and make it more comfortable for you back there.”
Just like that, you understood with a mixture of relief and wondering frustration, all was forgiven between Jane and Veronica. You had seen it happen before – no apologies, no tears, no deep, heartfelt explanations, the way you had been told, over and over, forgiveness was supposed to work – but each time, you found yourself utterly fascinated. In those moments, they were always the unfamiliar strangers again. With every layer of their relationship your mother and your sister peeled back to reveal to you, with each fold you were slowly, cautiously, welcomed into, a new level of infuriating complexity emerged, it seemed to you.
“I’m going to fill up,” Jane said, pulling off a bumpy exit and into the parking lot of a quiet gas station. “You two should stretch your legs a little bit.”
“You bet we should,” Veronica replied, sneaking a quick hand into Jane’s purse and pulling out a twenty dollar bill. “Mr. Deal’s buying us some shades, Babe-o. This sun is absolutely killing me.”
“Oh, Veronica…” your mother started, before she shook her head in assent. “Fine. But something cheap. No Gucci or Steve Madden, whatever you girls are wearing these days.”
“God, Mom,” Veronica barked an incredulous laugh. “You are so OLD. Besides. We’re at—” she craned her head out of the car to get a look at the name of the stop. “Dave’s Lube Thru? Oh, Jesus. That’s nice. I really don’t think we have to worry about finding anything Gucci here. We’ll be lucky if we make it out without contracting gonorrhea.”
She rolled her eyes and winked at you. You loved Veronica purely, without condition or reserve – when she was actively furious and stringing together complicated strands of barely decipherable obscenities, when she locked herself inside her roiling anxieties and her mouth tightened, her eyes cemented, and her face seemed crafted out of marble instead of skin, when she pushed and pushed, knocked relentlessly against you or Jane or even herself, testing every rule and every boundary, simply because she could. When she scared you, when she laughed at you, when she ignored you – loving her was an always, as familiar and inevitable to you as breathing. You thought you loved her most, though, in quick, little moments like this, when she looked at you as though you knew exactly what she was thinking, as though the same invisible vein that connected her to Jane in so many impossible ways also attached itself to you. When she looked at you like she more than knew you, like she was part of you, the strangers in the photograph dissolved.
“I know,” she had explained to you the night you passed her test, “because she stopped trying. She made him dinner like three nights in a row last week. Now she’s letting him bang her, so he takes her out. That’s how Jane works,” she continued, as though your mother were a machine, complete with operational instructions, instead of a person. “I also know she doesn’t really like him. In fact, she thinks he’s gross and boring and I’m sure she never gets off when they do it.”
You didn’t know what getting off meant at that point, but you were captivated by Veronica’s analysis – stated matter-of-factly in a voice that approached monotone, as if she were reading from a service manual – so you nodded.
“So they’re in there fucking and she doesn’t even like him,” Veronica summarized. For your benefit or her own, you weren’t sure. “You know what that means, Babe-o?”
Of course you didn’t.
“Of course you don’t.” She swung her legs up onto her bed, clearing a spot next to her, and patted the covers. “C’mere.”
You had slid off your own bed and settled in against the heavy warmth of her arm as it curved around your thin shoulders.
“It means,” she began, and the first hint of emotion – bitterness? Anger? Resentment? You couldn’t tell – colored her flat tone. “That he’s going to be around for awhile.” She sighed, shaking her head and dropping it back to the bed frame, regarding the ceiling for long enough that you, too, tilted your neck up, trying to follow her gaze. “You, me, Jane, and Mr. Fucking Deal. We don’t need him, you know.” She punctuated this last statement by pinning her eyes to yours, daring you to disagree with her. “We don’t. But Jane thinks we do, so that’s the end of that.”
The end of what, you wanted to ask, except Veronica had said it with such resignation that you could only assume it was something obvious.
“You might want to start getting packed pretty soon,” Veronica advised you later that night. “I’d say we’ve got about a month left here.”
Three weeks later, you were in a moving van, heading west to Blandon.
“Oh my God, Babe-o,” Veronica stage-whispered to you inside the gas station’s convenience store, bending nearly to your level and peering closely at the items on the shelves. She lifted a green bottle of soda and held it up so you could read the label. “Quist? Like, what the fuck is a Quist? Are they serious? They’re serious. This place is fucking unbelievable. Well, we have to get a bottle, I mean, right? It’s soda. Called Quist. Hey, the sunglasses are over here.”
Trailing Veronica through the tight aisles of the dusty gas station – “Rally? Rally. What is this supposed to be right now, Coke’s illegitimate half-brother that no one talks about? Can you even handle this fucking soda, Babe-o? We have to try this one, too.” – you remembered, slowly, as though waking carefully from a dream, what you were doing here, at a rest stop along your fleeting exodus.
“What are we going to do?” you wondered, tasting the uncertainty of the words. Veronica, who had made her way to the counter and was plucking a pair of sunglasses off the display rack, frowned in your direction.
“Well, you’re going to be a state trooper,” she answered, placing the large silver aviators on your face. “Oh, Babe-o. You look good. What do you mean, what are we going to do?” She turned back around, selecting a pair for herself, and set them on the counter alongside the two bottles of soda. “Those too,” she told the man at the register, pointing to the oversized sunglasses you still wore.
For a moment, Veronica seemed distorted – less herself, in your eyes, than she ever had been, although this was the quintessential Veronica: brassy, quick-mouthed, impulsive and unapologetic. Her face softened, though, and she reached for you, gently removing the aviators from your face before dropping a hand to your shoulder and leading you toward the door.
“Hey, it’s going to be okay. I guess you were too young to remember the last time Jane got us kicked out, huh? Wasn’t quite as dramatic, but then, Bentley wasn’t as much of a douche bag as Mr. Deal. Close, but not in the same league. You don’t remember at all? Probably not. I think you were only around four.”
You thought maybe, embedded somewhere you couldn’t quite reach, you knew what Veronica was talking about. Hazy impressions drifted through your awareness: a much younger Veronica pulling you toward her, you, burying your face in something soft and familiar (a blanket? Her sweater?), and, somewhere above the both of you, your mother’s voice cracking around a word that sounded like good-bye, but could have been anything.
“Anyway,” Veronica was continuing as you approached the car, “we stayed at Aunt Cait’s for like five months or whatever. We’ll probably just tool around there for the rest of the summer until Mom can’t stand it anymore. Right?” Her question was directed at your mother, who had hauled the largest of the cardboard boxes out of the backseat and was making room for it in the trunk.
“Right about what?” Jane’s voice was muffled, and, with a final grunt, she wedged the box inside the trunk, lifting her head triumphantly. “Nice glasses,” she observed, and Veronica touched the ends of the aviators she had chosen for herself, which were identical to your own.
“Thanks. Babe-o has the same ones, but she went all emo on me when she put them on, so they’re in the bag for now. Please tell her everything is going to be fine, Mom?”
“Oh, sweetheart.” Jane came around to where you and Veronica were standing and tugged on your jersey, wrinkling her nose. “I’m sorry.”
Please don’t, you wanted to interrupt. You weren’t interested in apologies, especially not from your mother. The words seemed rigid, clumsy and uncomfortable dropping from her precise mouth, and anyway, you weren’t trying to blame her. If anything, you thought, trying to isolate the peculiar sensation starting in your tightened chest, you were worried about her. You would be okay. You always were.
“Everything is really, really going to be fine,” she continued, still toying with the end of your uniform. “It’s just going to be the three of us again, but –”
“But we’re all that matters anyway,” Veronica interjected, reaching into her plastic bag and pulling out the bottle of Quist. “Well, the three of us, and our new friends Quist and Rally here. Come on, let’s toast to the end of Mr. Deal and to, uh, to Dave’s Lube Thru. Because really, Dave? Really.”
So you stayed rooted to your spot in the deserted parking lot of Dave’s Lube Thru, with your mother, who, leaning against the car with her hair pushed back out of her face and clutching the bottle of Rally with both hands, looked younger than you felt in that moment, and your sister, who took a long swig of the Quist before handing it to you, and stood, sunglasses on, with her face raised to the sky.
Everything felt like years ago. This moment and the next, the quiet seconds passing between the three of you, the bottle of soda you clutched in your hands – were all as distant and clouded in your mind as the shattered pieces of the soccer game (God, you had played soccer that morning, hadn’t you?) or the foggy snapshots you’d just conjured of the last time you’d been in this position.
Veronica shook her head and stretched, bringing you, as she usually did, crashing back to the present.
“Okay,” she announced. “I’m pretty much over Dave and his Lube Thru. And we should probably be putting a little more distance between ourselves and Mr. Deal,” she added, nodding at Jane’s purse before turning to you with a quick grin. “We’re like fuckin’ fugitives, Babe-o, can you believe it?”