My dad’s house was interiorly designed by this lady, Jeanie, who had big hair and a big crush on my dad. She had a fifteen-year-old daughter, so of course I fell in love with her; I was a nine-year-old in fifth grade. Her daughter’s name was Courtney, and Courtney had brown hair and sang a lot of Britney Spears' songs.
My dad did not have a crush on Jeanie. I know this because my mom told me. She said, “She’s not even your dad’s type.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Look at her, Dalton.”
“Okay,” I said, even though Jeanie wasn’t there for me to look at.
“Does she look like me?”
She was hunched over the stove smoking a cigarette. Her lipstick had stained the brown filter a light red. A lot of people thought she looked like Heather Locklear.
I have no idea how they met—my dad and Jeanie. I think maybe at the gym. My dad worked out every day. He liked to talk to people between sets. He knew everyone at the gym, and everyone at the gym knew him. He had big arms, a big chest—he liked to fill his shirts. These are the things we do so we’ll be loved.
My dad drove me to Jeanie’s house because he wanted to talk to her about what all she could do inside his house. At this point, it was pretty bare. It was mainly some walls and places to rest.
Her house was tall and had checkered tile flooring in the kitchen and marble columns between the living room and foyer. It seemed like a mansion. This is where I met Jeanie and Courtney for the first time. They stood in the entrance, which was as big as a living room, and started asking me about myself. I told them I played baseball, I liked NSYNC, my best friend’s name was Sean. “Also, I like Spider-Man,” I said.
Jeanie and Courtney told me they were involved with this children’s book—something to do with a bunny that keeps a kid company at night. Courtney sang a song that came on a CD, which accompanied the book. The book hadn’t yet been published, so they were still making songs. They showed me the pre-published version of the book and the stuffed bunny with bunny sandals.
Jeanie asked if I’d like to sing for the book before she’d even heard my singing, which wasn’t very good, but it didn’t matter because they were looking for children with shitty voices to contribute to the songs to make it seem all the more genuine. She told me I’d go to a recording studio and sing with other kids my age who also had shitty voices. Courtney would be there too. So, I said yes, that’d be great.
I wanted to hang out with Courtney as much as possible. I also thought I’d be famous or something because that’s what all kids think, that they’re special and unique. I thought I deserved to be famous.
At the studio, we ended up staying for longer than intended. Like three hours or something. It was a school night and I was supposed to be staying at my mom’s, so she kept calling Jeanie’s phone. Then Jeanie’s phone died, and I worried my mom would be mad. So, I told Jeanie I should probably go home, so she took me back. Courtney kept talking on the way about this one boy she liked. A very tall boy who played baseball. Then Jeanie asked her about this other boy, a husky boy, who liked her, a boy I had met and had thought was coming on too strong. Courtney didn’t say much about him. I wanted Jeanie to ask Courtney about me. What did she think of me, even though I was much younger than her?
I was special, I was unique.
I was right. My mom was mad when I got home. Not at me, but at Jeanie.
That night I thought about the boy that Courtney didn’t like. I’d only seen him once, but had heard a lot about him from Courtney who seemed annoyed by his forwardness. One day, Jeanie took us bowling with the boy Courtney didn’t like. He got up to bowl and said, “If I get a strike, you have to kiss me.” He said this to the girl he knew didn’t like him. Maybe he knew Jeanie liked him and wanted Courtney to like him too.
Courtney stared with her mouth open. She said, “You’re not gonna get a strike.”
“Okay,” he said. “So agree to it.”
“Okay,” she said.
He then got a strike; he did not keep his cool. He jumped up and down. I sat by Jeanie and looked at her. She seemed excited, too. I was a little pissed because I liked Courtney and I didn’t want her kissing anyone.
Courtney shook her head. “I’ll kiss the floor.”
“No,” he said. “You swore.”
“I’m kissing the floor,” she said. It was quick and we all watched.
This was what I thought about as I fell asleep. I didn’t want the boy who liked Courtney to get his kiss because if I couldn’t get a kiss, no one could. Even though I’d gotten what I wanted, it didn’t feel very good.
Or at least, I told myself I shouldn’t feel good about it. I fell asleep right after this.
My mom bought me a flip phone. She told me to keep it on me at all times. She told me to keep it charged at all times. She told me to be wary of Jeanie. She told me not to fully trust Jeanie.
Jeanie spent a lot of time at my dad’s house, showing him all of his options, showing him which colors would look best where, what furniture to buy, how certain lighting would illuminate things “the right way.” This was when I learned of the color maroon.
Sometimes Courtney would come with her. While Jeanie and my dad discussed things, Courtney and I would go to my room and play this Hulk game on my Xbox. We’d pick up people and jump on buildings and then throw them off and try to catch them at the bottom. Mostly, Courtney played. She liked pretending like she was telling everyone that she was actually a good guy, that she was the kind of Hulk that wouldn’t hurt you but would love you and protect you. I didn’t care she played more than I did. I was just glad she was in my room, sitting on my bed with me, her thigh sometimes touching mine.
One time her hand touched my thigh.
One time she went in my room and just walked around looking at things. She picked up pictures and trophies and toys and books and put them back.
She said, “You have a lot of stuff.”
I said, “Thanks.”
She smiled. “What’s this?” She held a piece of paper. I wasn’t sure how she’d gotten that since I’d hidden it in my sock drawer. I hadn’t seen her look in my sock drawer, which also had my underwear.
I reached for the piece of paper as she unraveled its folds. “Give that back,” I said.
“Who’s Ginny?” she asked. “Your girlfriend?”
“No,” I said. “She’s just some girl.”
The thing with Ginny was she’d once been my girlfriend, in like third grade or something. But then she had to move away, and her last day at school was a day I had missed due to being sick. When I returned to school her friend gave me Ginny’s letter. It said she’d miss me and that she’d always love me and that she hoped to see me soon. I haven’t seen her since.
I still have the letter. It’s still in my sock drawer.
Courtney was reading the letter because she was fifteen and much taller than me. She read the letter and smiled and teased me about Ginny every time I saw her after that.
I told her, “Ginny’s no one.” I told her, “Ginny’s in the past.” I told her, “I didn’t even realize I still had that.” I thought this letter would ruin my chances with Courtney. But I was also mad at Courtney for reading Ginny’s letter and for snooping through my sock drawer that had my underwear in it too, but not mad enough to be truly mad at the girl I loved.
When she gave the letter back to me, I folded it up the way it had been, the way Ginny had folded it and placed it back in my sock drawer in the tube of orange baseball socks I never wore.
My dad then came in the room, which was something he did a lot, and I realize now it was a way for him to escape Jeanie’s flirting. He came in holding a catalogue of furniture.
“You like this couch?” he said. “We’re gonna get this couch.”
It was leather and light-brown and you could pull a lever and you’d be lying on your back, almost at a ninety-degree angle. It was much different than the two pin-striped La-Z-Boy’s we had. I didn’t like it.
“Cool,” I said.
Then Jeanie came in the room, and we were all in my room. I wished we all could’ve stayed in there together forever. Me, Jeanie, Dad and Courtney.
Jeanie said, “It’s going to look so good in there. Especially when you get all this new stuff.”
“What kinds of new stuff?” I asked.
“New everything,” my dad said. “New TV, new paint, new couch, new table.”
“And plants,” Jeanie said. “Lots of plants.”
“Well, fake plants,” my dad said.
“We’ll see,” she said.
Courtney started playing the Hulk game. She said, “What these people don’t understand is that I’m here to help them. I’m going to help you, sir!” she said, as she picked up a guy and took him to the top of a building. “Watch this,” she said. Then she dropped him. And she tried to get the Hulk to the bottom before the guy hit the ground, but she didn’t make it in time. “Hold on,” she said and tried again.
“Okay,” Jeanie said. “Let’s go home.”
“But what’s wrong with what we have now?” I asked dad.
“It’s old, Dalton,” he said. “Change is good."
I’d known for about a month that Jeanie and Courtney were moving. Jeanie had gotten some job doing something cooler with better pay in Ohio.
The day before they left, they said they’d spend the whole day with me, and I know now how much they must have cared for me, since they spent their last day in the area with a fifth grader.
It was the same day Courtney sang the National Anthem at Power Park. She threw up that morning and then another two times once we got to the park. She said all she wanted to do was sing the last verse the best because no matter how good or bad you sang the rest of the song, everyone would judge you based on how you sang “home of the brave.” And she was right.
I didn’t know shit about singing. I thought I could tell when something sounded good, but Jeanie told me that Courtney’s singing wasn’t very good the first half, but then got better the second half and even better for the last verse.
People really seemed to like the last part.
We only stayed for three innings and then went back to my dad’s house. Only half of what she’d wanted to get done with the house was completed. She left orders for my dad for when she was gone. She told him he’d better send pictures of what’s changed. So far, we had the painting done and the fake plants and the couch. He kept wanting to get more. Jeanie kept encouraging him to get more. She’d show him more couches, more fake plants, more TVs.
We spent most of the night watching Billy Madison and eating ice cream and cookies and building a fort. My dad didn’t participate except for when it came to watching movies. He must’ve felt uncomfortable. He must’ve wondered why Jeanie had chosen to spend her last day with me, if she’d done this in a last attempt at something with him, that he knew I didn’t fully understand what was going on, why this woman and her fifteen-year-old daughter wanted to spend so much time with me.
Right before we went to bed, Jeanie was hanging out in the living room with dad. I didn’t know or care what they were doing. This was my last time alone with Courtney, and I knew that, and she kept pulling out this Sprite bottle from her backpack and taking drinks and making a squinty face. She kept telling me they’d come visit me all the time, but by then I understood that they gave lots of false promises. Even Courtney. Especially Courtney.
We were under the fort playing Hulk, watching him throw people off buildings through a crack in the swarm of blankets. Unlike Courtney, I’d stopped trying to catch the people at the bottom. I thought it was funny when they grunted once they hit the ground. I thought it was funny when they died. I thought it was funny when I caused them pain.
Our legs were touching again, and Courtney was being nice and letting me play for a while. She’d told me it was my night, that we got to do whatever I wanted.
I thought she felt guilty for leaving me or something.
She said, “You’re my best friend.”
She said, “You’re such a good kid.”
She took another drink from the Sprite bottle. I couldn’t tell if she was nervous about tomorrow or if she didn’t want to leave. She was acting different. Her mouth hung open and her eyes widened. Her breath smelled like metal.
Jeanie was telling my dad a story in the living room about when she was a little girl, how she used to pick apples from the nearby orchard and then throw them at her brothers when they went to beat her up. I could hear the inflection in her voice. What she was really saying was, “I love you. Why won’t you love me?”
My dad was quiet, laughing when he was supposed to, and being polite, telling her that he bet they didn’t pick on her after that.
Courtney’s thigh was really touching my thigh.
Jeanie was whispering then, stifling a soft giggle, and then my dad was wheezing. I tried to imagine what she said that really got him going. I wondered if she threw the apples at their balls. My dad liked that kind of humor.
But in my room, I was the Hulk and I was throwing cars and people and killing everyone and laughing and smiling and feeling Courtney’s hand going up my thigh, her lips on my neck. I was then laughing because it tickled, and I thought she was just being playful.
And then her hand was higher up my shorts, and she wasn’t saying anything or even looking at me. And her hand was pulling at my waistband, her fingernails gliding against my pelvis.
I couldn’t hear anything then. I wasn’t sure if my dad and Jeanie were still talking or if they’d fallen asleep or if they were walking toward my room.
The Hulk kept killing people. I didn’t know what else to do. I thought this was Courtney’s way of saying, “I love you,” and I was willing to let her do anything I didn’t want, anything that would hurt, as long as I knew she was loving me. I would’ve let her stab me. I would’ve let her take me to the top of a building and throw me off.
Nothing else happened, though. She heard Jeanie say her name and then she stopped and left the fort.
My dad called my name.
We both went into the living room and listened to them tell stories about their siblings and their childhoods, telling us things that they thought had been so dangerous, things that required responses like, “It’s amazing you’re still alive.”
Then Jeanie and Courtney and I were in my room, under the fort. Courtney seemed mad at me, and I wondered what I’d done wrong, if I’d said or done something that made her think I wouldn’t let her love or hurt me.
I woke up at 3am. I was still under the fort. My dad snored in his bedroom. There were candy wrappers scattered all over my bed.
I had figured I’d wake up lying between Courtney and Jeanie. I had figured we’d wake up early together and they’d decide their life was too good here to leave, and we’d all live in my room, under this fort, playing Hulk, carrying people wherever we wanted, choosing to kill or save anyone at random.
But they were gone.
I checked my sock drawer for a note. But I could only find the note from Ginny that said she’d miss me and that she’d always love me. I wanted it to say, “Love, Courtney. Love, Jeanie.”
I fell back asleep on the pillow Courtney’s head had rested on earlier. It smelled like her—sweet like strawberries but also a little bad, like she’d burned it with her curling iron.
I waited months for them to return. I’d sometimes text Jeanie and get a reply, but she wouldn’t respond after the initial reply. Courtney never responded. I thought they were busy with their new lives. But then I slowly forgot of their promise to visit.
I think about them a lot. I think about Jeanie when I see my dad’s house, still decorated the same. I think about Courtney when a young woman sings the National Anthem. I have the Bunny book and the Bunny CD, which I play sometimes to hear Courtney’s voice. I still don’t understand what Jeanie was saying. I always thought Courtney’s voice sounded nice. Mine still sounds shitty.