What We Leave Behind

Stephanie King

Writer’s Note: This is part of a series I call “Monologues,” a loose collection of those really voicey flash pieces that you can almost hear. I love writing flash in both traditional forms and hermit crab but one thing that can get lost in that amount of compression is giving yourself over to the voice of the piece.

When I was a teenager, my aunt left her abusive husband and took off with my cousins to live in her car until she settled somewhere. Through the years, my mother has worked for homeless advocacy orgs and they really stress the importance of that bridge of getting someone a hotel room for a couple of nights. I wanted to explore that tenuousness of the last rung of the ladder between sleeping in a bed and sleeping on the street.

When I started the story, I wasn’t intending it to be a romance. I have a middle-school daughter and one of the things we’ve talked about, with her being a student at a high-poverty school in a catchment that includes two homeless shelters, is that some of her classmates must be homeless even though she doesn’t know which ones. I wanted to capture what it would be like to try to navigate that minefield of adolescence and mundane things like high school dances in that situation, but with hope for how things could turn out. Sometimes the people you meet on a tough journey are the only ones who can understand where you’re really coming from.

              When it got cold, Mom started putting her money into hotel stays. She had a little calendar where she planned out where we would sleep each night. We can spend Christmas with Aunt Sandy in Virginia, stretching it out to six days, as long as she dared, then her friend Talia in Maryland on the way home for a night or two. We spent the warm months sleeping in her battered old RAV4. By the time December came around, I’d started thinking of lying flat while I slept as a luxury.

              There was an eviction moratorium and rental assistance but that didn’t make a difference. Our landlord said he didn’t have time for paperwork. He barely spoke English and the apartment was most likely illegal anyway. The wall between the staircase and our apartment had rickety drywall like he’d done it himself. He put our stuff out on the curb and changed the locks one sunny August day when we’d gone down the shore for the afternoon.

              We’d been going to school for years under our grandmother’s old address. I was supposed to watch Quincy and make sure he didn’t get into fights on the playground, lose his lunchbox. We ate the free breakfast and took more for later if we could get away with it. Sometimes the hotel Mom bid on had a continental breakfast and when that happened, that breakfast muffin went straight into our backpack for an after-school snack.

              None of that mattered because I was fourteen and obsessed with losing my virginity to Jamal Smith. He was the tallest boy in our class, shot up fast, that school year the boys finally catching up with the girls who were more mature than them, wearing our little training bras since sixth grade. Their heads got higher as their voices got lower and we were appreciative. All the girls liked him, but I’d been helping him with his math homework since third grade and he’d always been nice, telling the other boys to knock it off when they teased me over a frayed hem on my uniform skirt or my bobo sneakers. We were poor even before we were really poor, a slow slide backwards like trying to climb out of a muddy hole.

              I couldn’t figure out where to take him. I was almost fifteen, a bundle of hormones and horny schoolgirl fantasies sharpened by reading the paperbacks my mom hid under her bed in a shoebox. Jamal had more siblings than I could count, a couple of sisters in the lower grades and then some small ones who weren’t in school yet. His mother always looked tired.

              He was a little bit older, had been left back somewhere along there with all the switching schools. Every day was a different spot of a slash of blood where he’d nicked himself shaving, not getting good at it yet. His pants were too short and showed a flash of ankle like a lady getting scandalous in a ruffled-shirt drama.

              Looking back, it’s easy to say, holy shit, we were homeless and he was just a regular teenage boy, but it didn’t feel like that at the time. Everything felt big. An adventure. He was the Duke and I was Daphne. My family wasn’t “sleeping in a car,” we were pirates sailing the high seas.

              I can’t say it was noteworthy when it finally happened. What I can say is that the hotel room was very nice. I remember the plushness of the robe I wore afterwards. I remember unwrapping the tiny soaps with the French names. The art in the hotel lobby was spectacular and we snapped selfies in front of it, glittering walls of crystal or chairs that wrapped around us like we were space captains. I knew how to bid on a hotel room from watching my mother and got a four-star for sixty-two dollars. I slept alone on a king-sized bed that starred in its own mattress commercial and was finally warm enough under its thick down duvet while my mother thought I was at a sleepover at a friend’s.

              I was super careful about protection because the one thing I knew was kids ruined your life and made you poor. My mother never said those words out loud, but she carried them with her in her slumped shoulders, exhaled them in her defeated sighs. On her own, she could have gotten a roommate somewhere, slept on someone’s couch. We were the ballast dragging at her ankles as she struggled to swim for shore.

              So this is not some sad story about how I found myself unfortunately at a clinic or crying on my girlfriends’ shoulders. Jamal and I did it two more times, once on the couch in his grandma’s basement after he let us in with the spare key while she was at the casino with her friends, the other upstairs at a party that Zykia’s older brother threw when their mom went down south for the weekend to take care of their sick grandma. The party was throbbing with bass and humanity and nobody noticed that we were gone up to the frilly bedroom of Zykia’s youngest sister, rolling around on a Frozen bedspread. He took me to the spring dance, me looking very pale in yellow after a long winter and him finally not cutting himself shaving.

              Mom eventually got a better job in an office, claiming secretary skills she didn’t have and using a friend who lied as a reference. By the time I started high school that fall we were back into a different shitty apartment, still eating ramen but secure about where we would sleep. We moved a lot those next couple of years, avoiding an eviction on our record and squashing roaches in a different neighborhood each time.

              When I came back for my unofficial 5-year high school reunion, her apartment was almost okay. Tiles were crumbling off the kitchen backsplash and the carpet was worn and ripped in places, scary stains in corners. But the complex was tidy and Quincy was taking the train to the same high school I attended and pulling straight As, running with a group of D&D nerds who called themselves “The Gregs” even though none of them were named Greg and one of them was a girl. I had moved to DC and was living a neat little studio that looked like an Express Suite in a nondescript suburb.

              I took a chance while I was in town and looked up Jamal through his sister on Facebook. I’d lost track of him when we went to different high schools but something about sitting in that hotel ballroom made me curious. At the bar where we met up the following night, in the restaurant that burned down while we were in school but had since been rebuilt, Jamal was tall and handsome, with the same kindness in his eyes as he asked politely about my community college degree, my entry-level job in an architect’s office. He’d dropped out of Morgan State after a torn meniscus ended his basketball career and his grades alone weren’t enough to keep his scholarship. He had a cousin who was supposed to hook him up with a union construction job that he’d been waiting for going on two years now.

              I was old enough to know better. I’d learned that home was where you make it, even if all I had was one oversized room full of Ikea furniture and a stray kitten I took in. I had nowhere to take him back to and he had two roommates. When I said, “Do you want to get a room,” I only meant for that night, a nostalgia trip. He was as careful with my body as he had been when I was a teenager.

              But here I am, weekend over, speeding alongside I-95 on the Acela I splurged for. Jamal stretches out in the seat next to me, his knees bumping into the seat in front of him with nowhere for his long legs to go. An adventure. My apartment will be too small for the two of us. I feel like I will need more towels, more forks, more everything, having never had enough. He says he will love my kitten because like a lot of families that moved around on the regular, he could never have pets. He holds my hand and says we will be the ones who made it. Together, we are just two people looking for home.

Stephanie King is a past winner of the Quarterly West Novella Prize and the Lilith Short Fiction Prize, with stories also appearing in CutBank, Entropy, and Hobart. She received her MFA from Bennington and serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. You can find her online at stephanieking.net or Twitter @stephstephking.