Another attempt at near-future science fiction. . . written during the near-past, when gays and lesbians were viewed, by the majority, as aberrations, needing re-education, admonition, pity... and perhaps something more.
When Tricia missed a probation meeting, I was the one her mother called. She had broken loose again, which might have pleased me at a younger age. "She's just giving you a good scare," I might have said, laughing inside. But it wasn't funny anymore, and Mrs. Quigg’s off-center questions only gave me more reason to believe that Tricia had really lost it this time.
"Jenny, where could she have gone? Who are her friends these days?"
"I don't really know. Tricia and I—"
"Does she still go to that club, you know, that homosexual place?"
"I think it closed down."
"I have a mind to go down there myself. What could she be doing? She can't hide from the police. She knows she can't hide."
"I'm sure she's fine."
"I keep thinking that something's happened."
I drove to Houston, no idea that this search for Tricia would be any different than the last.
Because my parents had moved to Oregon, I stayed with the Quiggs, coming into town so late that I almost hit a deer on the road that winds up the hill to their home. Mrs. Quigg was up, reading a True Crime book, filling her head with ideas of bandits in the night, with the very dear fears that held her life together. She scrutinized me through the peephole, taking in the newly buzz-cut, undyed brown hair and eyebrow ring, sizing me up.
"I almost didn't recognize you," she said on the way to Tricia's old room.
"I needed a change."
"The red looked good, the long, wavy red—it goes with your face."
"Long hair is a hassle. This feels much better."
"If you say so." She left the discussion there, with a sleepy, disapproving sigh, making me feel like an unsavory business partner who has to be tolerated. I was glad when she shut the bedroom door behind me, giving me some private space and the freedom to rest.
I lay down on Tricia's bed. In all these years the Quiggs had not failed to keep the Charlie's Angels flannel sheets clean-smelling and tucked tightly around the bed's water bag, or taken the sunglasses off the ET doll, or even stopped caring for the eels and squid in the huge salt-water tank at the foot of the bed. I listened to the dark tank gurgling, feeling Tricia everywhere, young and girlish and unchanging. I slid my arm behind my leg, imagining that it was Tricia's thigh, coming across to my side of the bed, pressing ever so shyly against my own leg. What a weird summer that had been. If anything had kept Tricia and me together over the years, it had been this common beginning: the danger, the child-like simplicity of it all, the way we had held hands in bed, like a very old couple sitting together. The way we had looked at each other, full of searching and bewilderment. She's still there, in what I've felt about all of my lovers, and sometimes I catch a glimpse of her, in a gesture or a remark, in a sad look from across the room. She popped into my head just before I left for Houston, actually, when Alexis and I were skinning carrots at the sink. Alexis brushed her hair back, and, since I saw only a movement at the edge of my vision, in my mind Tricia passed, the red silk scarf wound about her shoulders, trailing behind her like the fluttering hand of a celebrity, her head high with queenly teenage dominion—and I wondered, briefly, turning to see Alexis's small face hidden in a pocket of dark hair, smart and sure as always, sure of what she was doing—I wondered whether Tricia and I ever could have survived to this moment, this domestic, subdued moment, if by chance our lives, unmolested, had been allowed to continue.
At breakfast the next morning Mr. Quigg folded himself carefully into the easy demeanor he showed company, appearing from the bedroom already shaved and dressed for work, smelling like a Wal-Mart soap aisle; comporting himself, it seemed, with the same "wise boredom" Tricia said he evinced the day he caught us fooling around in the pool. The constant poking and prodding of his scrambled eggs with his fork reminded me that he was a fidgeter, and that he had probably been making similar motions with a pen or something while he had told her about the biochemical nature of homosexuality, Brennan's Cathexis, the curving of a line that should have been straight, the pills that could cancel the quadratic term. . . A year later, two years maybe, Tricia might have questioned her father, spoken up for who she thought she was, but at fifteen she was probably relieved, seated here at this glass table, relieved to hear that she was finally understood, by science no less, and that she could exercise careful control over who she might become.
After thanking me for coming down, Mr. Quigg turned his attention to the meal, rarely looking up, still uncomfortable around me, his daughter's first lover. Meanwhile, his wife buttered a piece of toast for him.
I asked if Tricia had gone back to living with Joey and Alan after prison.
Mrs. Quigg said no. "She still likes those gay boys, though. She's living with boys again. We got Tricia a nice little efficiency near the campus, but she wasn't there a week before she decided she'd rather sleep on some stranger's floor than pay her rent."
"Do I know them?" I said.
Mrs. Quigg handed the buttered toast to her husband.
"I think she knew the boys from school," said Mr. Quigg.
I asked if Tricia had been to school since the missed probation meeting.
"The police were supposed to find out," said Mr. Quigg.
"What do her roommates say?"
Mrs. Quigg raised her eyebrows. "They don't know what she does, or they won't tell us. I think it was that boy Pinky I talked to. He was terribly rude."
Mr. Quigg said, "The police couldn't get them to say anything."
"I left a message on their machine," Mrs. Quigg continued, "and when they didn't call back I called them and said that this was an emergency; that Tricia had just missed her probation meeting. And that's when Pinky said it was none of his business and that he didn't care what Tricia did. 'That's your job,' he said. 'I'm not a baby-sitter.'"
Mr. Quigg shook his head, then he raised his eyes, giving me a penetrating, sober look. "Thanks for coming down again. Tricia will appreciate it, I hope. You're the only one of her friends who really cares about her, from what I can tell."
Mr. Quigg continued eyeing me, and I found it hard not to look away. "I'm sure I'm not the only one," I said.
"You're always there when she needs you," said Mrs. Quigg.
"We're glad that you could come," said Mr. Quigg.
I thanked them and promised to do everything I could to find Tricia.
I passed the early morning with Mrs. Quigg while she cleaned the kitchen, having been waved into inaction when I tried to help with the dishes. If I'd never made one of these trips to Houston, never stayed with the Quiggs, never stood for 20 minutes in my old girlfriend's kitchen watching her mother clean and order everything, I might never have forgiven Mrs. Quigg. But now, despite how much I once despised this woman's fear of messes, of messy houses and messy lives, I see only a worried parent, driving her daughter to the Kingwood Community Clinic, laying down her Platinum Visa for two bottles of blue pills, signing the papers to change her daughter not with the malice of a god but with the concern of a parent. She could never have known what a sickness those pills would put in Tricia and me, mine vicarious or imagined, the nausea caused by holding hands, or by looking too closely at each other—a creeping nausea spreading from our guts to our throats and then to our mouths, growing by sure increments, until that last night at the old elementary school playground, when we sat together on one of the concrete tunnels, wanting to feel the same but knowing that the time had passed. I kissed her that night, and she tried to kiss back, fighting to hold me, shaking like a dying woman, but she pulled away at last, her eyes wet with shame and defeat. "I can't," I can still hear her saying. "It's over."
I passed these cement tunnels on the way downtown. They had been painted new colors, bright orange and red and yellow. The swingset, too, was new. Every trace of Tricia and me was covered over. Two boys with sportscars on their T-shirts chased each other around and around one of the tunnels, and it seemed to me, as I turned the corner near where they were playing, that all of those episodes from Tricia's and my childhood, which had seemed so new and important, even epic at the time, had been little more than bumps and scrapes. We'd skinned our knees—like so many other children—gotten our medicine, and back we'd gone onto the playground.
I stepped onto the worn wood porch of the old house on Westheimer, walking softly, reluctant to be prying into Tricia's life this way, like a social worker. A pink Volkswagen Bug, decorated with yellow painted flowers and parked in the dirt of the front yard, indicated that the person at home was possibly this "Pinky" character. When I saw him, however, strutting toward the door like a dancer, a skimpy half-shirt tight over his chest, like a halter-top, I recognized him as one of Tricia's club buddies from Inside Out, a frail Hispanic boy who had always worn the same short silk dress, too poor probably to own more than one nice piece of clothing. He had been Tricia's first Genon customer, when she had started trading her "gen-ben" pills, as they were called on the street, for crystal and X. He glided into the doorway with a sureness of movement and expression he could never have managed the year I knew him, an adult self-possession. Maybe those months of Genon-induced homosexuality—the appetite for men the pills were supposed to put in Tricia's body—had brought him something, an intense first love-affair perhaps, something that would always be there when he looked in the mirror, telling him who he was. "Divine," I said, remembering his name, "I'm a friend of Tricia's."
"Child, I haven't heard that name in years." He leaned an arm against the doorframe, not opening the screen door.
I introduced myself, but before I could explain how I knew Tricia he cut me off.
"Angel, you're one day behind. The cops already have the whole story on tape."
"I'd like a copy of that tape."
"Well, you'll have to talk to the police about that. If you're looking for Tricia, though, I could give you her number. But you can't call from here, because we're pretty sure they've got a tap on the line."
I was amazed at the ease of my little investigation. Out here among Tricia's friends it was still the kids versus the adults. Divine introduced himself as Brandon and said that he remembered me from my high-school days. Over a couple of beers, he told me that he had been worried about Tricia since she had started dancing at one of the local strip clubs. "She acts like it's nothing, you know. Like, 'Oh, it's just easy money,’ and that kind of thing. But she's not the kind of girl who can just turn off her feelings, you know. I think you have to be like that to work in one of those places."
"She's talked about doing it for years. Whenever she really hit a dead end, she was going to go strip. It was always a play for sympathy."
"That's a pretty cynical thing to say. She does need the money, you know."
"You might be right," I said quickly, worried that I'd been too glib. "We haven't been all that close lately."
For a time, we drank from our dew-covered beer bottles in the non-air-conditioned room, then Brandon said solemnly, "You should call her once in a while. She talks about you all the time."
"You should have heard her all last month. 'She's very busy. I'm sure she'll call this weekend.’"
Last month . . . I couldn't remember what had been going on back then. "Are you sure she was talking about me?"
"You're the architect in Austin, right? She had this idea for a rammed-earth office complex . . ."
"Oh, yeah . . ." The phone message came back, dimly. She hadn't said anything else, just that she had this idea for a rammed-earth building. As of last fall, she wanted to study architecture like me—a nearly unreachable goal, given her transcripts, but one she took very seriously. "I had no idea that was something important."
"You should keep up, give her a boost sometimes. You know. You're her role model."
"Hardly," I said, managing a small, dismissive laugh. I was being chewed out, calmly and deliberately. Justifiably. My guard was down. In truth, I tried to stay a mile away from Tricia's grandiose schemes. Any word of criticism I dared to voice she would tear apart with merciless wild-eyed determination, swiping at enemies I could never see but which always seemed to be circling just over her head. I'd learned to let her believe in things, as long as they made her feel better. "I'll make an effort," I said. "I'll try."
"Well, you have manners at least. But I think I get it. You live in Austin. You've got a whole other life, friends, your job . . ." Brandon pulled his bob-length hair tight behind his ears, staring at me sideways like I was possessed or something. "What do you want with Tricia? Her parents send you?"
"Um . . ."
"Because if that's all this is—if you don't even care enough to make a phone call once in a while, but she gets in trouble and you take it upon yourself to make her turn herself in, then you can forget about that number, girl. It's none of your business."
"Turn herself in? What happened? Yeah, I talked to her parents, but that doesn't make me a secret agent. I drove in from Austin because as far as her family knows—or anyone else—she's cut up in a gutter somewhere."
"I changed my mind. It's Tricia's business when she wants to be found. She'll call you."
"So she's safe? You're that sure? Or are you just too chicken to get her out of whatever mess she's in?"
"You have no right to talk to me like that."
"What if it's on the news tomorrow? She turns up dead in a bayou somewhere. You're an accomplice. You helped some bunch of freaks kill her because you were too chicken to do anything yourself. I can walk out the door right this minute. I'll tell the cops exactly what you told me. How's that? Want to play it that way?"
"Easy, easy. Christ, girl." Brandon shrugged his small shoulders and hunched forward. With his fingers, he pushed around some spilled sugar on the edge of the table. "She can take care of herself."
"You want to do something for her, now's your chance."
Brandon looked up, left his hands touching the table's surface, and ran some calculations, eying me distrustfully. I had him, and apparently my guess about Tricia had struck a nerve. "I'll give you the number," he said suddenly. "Fine—call her. But that girl trusts you. She's having a hard time right now. She doesn’t need a bunch of assholes poking her with thermometers and needles and trying to dissect her brain."
"Tricia can trust me," I said simply.
I made the call from the strip place, since it was right around the corner, but I used the payphone in the parking lot. All I wanted was to hear Tricia's voice; I just wanted to know that she was okay. When I heard her break into the second ring, though, I began stammering like a panicked mother. "Tricia? Is that you? It's me, Jenny. Are you— Do you know how freaked out your parents are?"
"Jenny. . ." Her voice was thin, a meandering thread. "Wow, this sure is a surprise."
Tricia sounded drunk or sleepy. In the background, a man's voice rose and fell, muffled like a gust of wind. "Where are you?" I said.
"The police. . . Do they. . .?"
"Don't worry. I got the number from your roommates. I'm at a payphone. What the hell's going on?"
Tricia sighed. "It's okay," she said to the man she was with. "It's Jenny. She's a friend of mine." Coming back to me, she said, "I'm so silly. Like you'd turn me in." She laughed.
"Tell me where you are."
"Yeah. Why don't you come down and take a look at the house? I'm in Clear Lake."
"House?" I said. Clear Lake was a little suburb south of town. "What are you doing down there? Are you in school? Who are you living with?"
"Oh, come and take a look."
I began to suspect that she was on something as she zigzagged through the directions, backtracking several times, talking faster than I could write. "Take Bay Area Blvd.—No, wait, it's Space Center. You go down past this little building with a big flag. That'll be on your right—no, wait, if you come down El Dorado, you might not see it. . ." She was getting lost just telling me where she was. I waited for the street address, then wrote it down.
Giving directions had worn her out. She waited on the other end, breathing heavily. After we said goodbye, I thought about calling the police, but I decided to talk to her first.
It must have been about 2:00 when I reached the house. A gray Le Baron was parked in the driveway, the top down. A hose had been set to water the flowerbed. The front door was open, and I could hear Tricia and a man talking together somewhere inside, the man's voice low and ironic, Tricia's high and always rising into laughter. When I realized that I couldn't make out what they were saying, I rang the bell, disrupting their conversation with a tone-generated rendition of the Adam's Family theme song.
The short gnome-like man who came to the door was wearing surgeon's clothes, a loose green short-sleeve shirt and green pants. Though he entered the foyer with the confident walk of a physician, by the time I could see his face he was taking guarded half-steps and pulling the door closed beside him. "Can I help you?" he said.
"I'm a friend of Tricia's."
Of the two of us, he seemed the most bewildered. I was the outsider, standing on a strange doorstep, no idea whether the man inside was Tricia's lover or what—yet he was the one with scrutiny in his eyes, bushy eyebrows drawn up, lines of his middle-aged face taut like the sketch-lines of a political cartoon. "Oh, yes, you called." He turned. "Tish, there's someone here to see you." He withdrew, not inviting me in.
There was a trotting of leather sandals across marble, then Tricia was at the door, greeting me with a familiar bashful smile I had known only since her release from prison, a solicitous, searching expression. In addition to the sandals, she was wearing khaki shorts, a belt, a blouse unbuttoned and tied above her naval, and an unfamiliar gold watch over her bracelet tattoo. She pulled open the door, revealing the attentive form of the man, who had withdrawn into the central hallway. "This is Raymond," she said.
I said hello, smiling faintly. Tricia told Raymond my name.
He replied without leaving the hallway. "Nice to meet you. Is this a friend from school?"
"Jenny's one of my favorite people in the whole wide world. I never see her anymore because she lives in Austin."
"In town on vacation? Spring break?"
He sounded nervous. I paid close attention to his behavior during the ensuing small talk, but very little struck me as unusual, except for the timid way he lingered near the edge of the room. He asked me how long I would be in town, and I said just for the day. He asked me where I was staying, and I said with friends. Gradually he relaxed. By the time he left for work, he seemed comfortable with my hanging out in his house for the afternoon.
When he had navigated the curving sidewalk to the driveway, looking to me like someone who had never cut across a patch of grass in his life, Tricia whispered in my ear, "Come see the pool. You won't believe it."
She gave me the full tour, pointing out the ups and downs of every room, just as my mother would for distant friends or relatives visiting our house. The pool, surrounded by beveled stone, was indeed beautiful, the fountain in the corner being the "up" part, the leaves and love-bugs littering the water being the "down" part. The kitchen was unkempt but nice, with granite countertops and reflective black appliances, the living room was a home theater, wide-screen TV, four speakers that looked like coat racks, one speaker that looked like a section of pipe, the bedroom had twin walk-in closets, one of them filled with clothes, the other one empty except for a duffel bag and a pile of dirty laundry. The bed was unmade.
In other words, Tricia was camping out in a nice little house. I gave her many compliments, finding nothing out of order. Yet Tricia herself seemed out of order, scattered somehow, chattering on and on about one detail only to forget what she was saying, moving on to another object or another room with a burst of interest. Her pale blue eyes kept shifting side-to-side, always searching for the next thing.
I played it cool while we had iced tea at a shaded table by the pool, asking simple, predictable questions. "So tell me about Raymond. Who is he? What does he do?"
"Oh, Raymond's a sweetheart. He works at the hospital. He's the guy who puts you to sleep before an operation."
"He seems like a nice guy."
"I met him in a club. He's very shy."
Obviously the job at the strip place had plopped her in the lap of this guy, where she'd asked him all about his life, probably done a dance or two, made him want to bring her home with him—but where did she think this was going? What about probation? What about school? It was like instead of running away from home she had run back home. Had she fallen in love with this guy? It was impossible.
Before I could ask any questions, however, Tricia asked me about my own life. "So, Jenny, I haven't seen you in forever. What's up?"
I'd just won a fellowship to spend a year at Oxford University, but that was the last thing I wanted to tell her. "Oh, the usual. Just studying."
"Come on, girl, talk. We're not on the phone. You're actually here. Say something. What are you up to?"
"My life isn't very exciting."
"I might as well talk to myself. Are you still living with Alexis?"
"Is she still the love of your life? She always seemed so normal to me."
"She's great. Yeah. . . . I haven't gotten bored—not yet."
"Maybe she's crazy underneath the surface. You guys must get wild once in a while."
"We might be getting too old for that sort of thing."
"Too old?" Tricia smiled at me over her iced tea. She bit the brim of the glass. "You're only a month older than I am."
"You know, Tricia, I'm really confused about what you're up to. Forget about me for a minute."
Smiling, Tricia poked at the ice pieces floating in her glass. "Hey, let's cool off. Wanna go skinny dipping?"
Not waiting for a reply, she set down the glass and untied her blouse, revealing a white flower-lace bra. For the life of me, I couldn't tell if she was flirting or just being irreverent. Though we hadn't messed around since junior high, she had pushed me that way from time to time, particularly since her release from prison. During my last visit to Houston, drunk from celebrating her first urine test, she'd hung on to me with one arm all the way home from a bar near her apartment, kissing me on the cheek several times. She'd left me on the couch with a blanket, but her behavior had been more than chummy. I wanted to avoid another uncomfortable situation. "I don't know about that," I said. I noticed that the house next door had a clear view of the pool from their second-story deck. "The neighbors will see."
"They'll be jealous." Tilting her hips, she pulled off the belt.
"What'll Raymond think if he comes home and finds two naked women in his pool?"
"He'll be mad," she said sarcastically, standing and unzipping her shorts. "He'll yell at us and ground us for a week."
I looked away as she let the shorts fall to her ankles. Though she'd been joking, I didn't like how she cast Raymond as a parent. It was too much like the times we'd skinny dipped in her parents' pool, our swimsuits on the steps in the shallow end in case someone came home. She was watching me, so I looked up, seeing the same adolescent mischief in her lopsided smile. "Let's just talk for a bit. Okay?"
She stepped out of her shorts, now wearing only the lingerie. She gave me a playful sneer. "Chicken," she said.
"I heard you were stripping," I said.
You would have thought a chill had just come over her the way she moved her hands to cover herself, removed them again, then crossed her arms over her chest. "Oh, for a day or two. I did it for kicks, really. That's all over now. Do you want to swim or not?"
My face got hot as I realized what an insult I'd just given her. "I just want to know what happened. What are you doing now?"
She pulled on her shorts with the exaggerated haste of a pouting child. "Fuck you. I'm going back to school. Who are you, my mother?"
"I thought you were in school."
"I'm going to transfer to U of H. There's a campus in Clear Lake."
Tricia picked up her blouse and began unfolding it.
"What about your probation officer? You can't just skip out of her district."
She threw on the blouse with swift, obdurate movements of her upper body. Something clattered across the table: pills from one of her pockets, I noticed.
I tried to act impassive, afraid I'd already said too much. She hurried after the pills as though they were her deepest secret, scattering some of them with the quick movements of her hands. Pills were here and there, broken in half (as though she nibbled at them when no one was looking), sliding, spinning in place. "She really only cares whether I have a job or not, whether I can take care of myself. I don't need a job anymore." A tablet fell onto the beveled stones of the patio; Tricia bent down to pick it up.
"What about the drug tests? Don't you go back to jail if. . .?"
"They don't need to test me. I'm okay. Besides, Raymond's a doctor."
"I don't think the tests have anything to do with your living situation."
"I don't need to be watched anymore."
She pocketed the last pill, setting and re-setting the proud expression on her lips, a nervous habit I had first noticed about a year after she'd gone on Genon, a clenching of her mouth aimed, it seemed, at keeping her face firmly in place, as though at any moment it might do the wrong thing. Particularly when she was on drugs, she worried that she would get away from herself, show something she didn't want to show—and over the years this had made it harder and harder to tell even who she wanted to be on the surface. "Tricia, your parents are scared to death. They have no idea where you are."
"I think we should visit them. What do you say? I'll drive you up and we can all have dinner."
"Oh, please. We don't hang out. Not in a while now. What do we have in common, you know? What did we ever have in common?"
I took her hand and made her stand up. "Come on, let's at least go inside; it's hot out here."
Tricia sat back down. Unable to free her wrist from my grip, she ended up yanking me a step forward. "No," she said, almost whining. "Why are you being like this?"
I pulled on her wrist, but her free arm held on to the chair.
"Stop it," she said. "Come on, let's just hang out here."
"Get up. I'm taking you home."
She bent her arm around the armrest, pressing down with her whole body. "Yes, Mommy."
"Don't make me hurt you."
"I've been a bad girl. Got all fucked up again. Took all the wrong pills. Lost all the good ones."
"I don't give a shit about your drugs. Just come on."
"Gotta get some more good ones."
I unwound her arm from the chair and draped it over my shoulder. God, I felt so old and different from her—I could have been her mother.
"Why can't we just hang out?" she said into my ear, letting her head fall onto my shoulder.
"We're just going to have dinner. We'll come back."
She hugged me with one arm, hard, eyeing me wildly. "You know I can't go. Please—Jenny, please don't make me." She squeezed my shoulder and looked into my eyes, trying to reach me, but I did not feel what she was saying. I didn't even recognize her, actually. All I saw in the earnest look on her face was the past—just the few pieces I could recall—the scared little girl I had known, the always slightly off-center kid, telling me at lunch that her parents had put her on gen-ben pills, her eyes ducking beneath her lower eyelids; the stoned pissed-off cheerleader; the strange Oz-like apparition at Inside Out. I had no idea how to reason with her, so I just dragged her up the patio steps and into the house.
"I should talk to Raymond," she said. "Maybe he'd want to come. Yeah, he has to meet them eventually."
We both came to a halt, finding Raymond in the foyer holding his medical bag in one hand. "Hello there," he said, raising his eyebrows in mild surprise. "Where are you two going?"
"I thought we'd grab a bite to eat," I said, halting Tricia by putting a hand on her shoulder. "I haven't had lunch yet."
"We're going to have dinner with my parents," said Tricia. "Want to come?"
The doctor nodded his head distantly, calculating, first looking at me, then giving Tricia a hard stare. "I don't care much for parents," he said. He shifted the medical bag to both hands, as though preparing to open it.
I watched him carefully, waiting for him to do something.
He cleared his throat. "I forgot my bag," he said.
"I see," I said. "We were going out to lunch. Is that okay?"
"Of course," he said. "I have to get back to work. I don't think I could make dinner."
Still holding Tricia's hand, I walked forward. If he was a psycho, this was his chance. We had to walk right past him.
When we reached the door, he held up a hand to make us stop. With concern, he eyed Tricia, whose head was lolling drowsily over my shoulder. "She okay?"
"I'm hunky-dory," replied Tricia.
The doctor looked at me with heightened anxiety. "How many did she take?"
"I don't know. What are they?"
Fortunately, Tricia chose this moment to perk up. "I'm fine. Jesus Christ, like I'd kill myself." She gave Raymond a wavering look, then she shoved me toward the door. "Let's go."
Raymond let us leave, holding the door, and asked Tricia when she'd be home.
She didn't reply, too dazed to hear him probably. I loaded her into the car and drove back to Kingwood. She lay on my shoulder all the way home, dozing now and then. I'd found her once again, only this time I felt no sense of reunion. She'd gone so far away, mentally, that not even I could follow. She was quiet for so long that I thought she had fallen asleep, but when we reached I-45, she said, in a soft voice very close to my ear, "You're not going to bring me back, are you?"
Unable to see her face, I concentrated on her breathing, which felt steady against my side, not obviously troubled or heightened by anger. "I don't know," I said.
"You think I've lost it."
As I merged onto the highway, my steering became jerky and I had to slam on the breaks to slip in behind a shiny green pickup. My face got hot. "I don't think you've lost it. Come on."
"You talk to me like I'm eight years old, like I'm some kind of invalid."
"I'm just confused, Tricia. It's a little strange, you running off with a man none of us know."
Tricia adjusted the position of her head on my shoulder. "Oh, Raymond's fine. You just have to get to know him."
"I don't doubt that he's nice."
"You think I'm hiding. You and Dr. Brown, you both think I'm afraid of everything."
Tricia sat up and stared at me, straightening the knot in her blouse. Forlorn and threatened, she watched me, waiting for an answer.
"I don't know if you're afraid or what," I said. "I really have no idea. That's why I'm taking you to Dr. Brown right now."
Tricia made a laugh like broken glass, trying to smile. "You're kidding."
My eyes stayed on the road. "I think you should see him," I said.
Tricia fell back against the car door. "You really think I'm sick?"
"I don't know. . . maybe. Maybe so." My heart leapt. Tricia leaned her head against the window and closed her eyes. I opened my mouth to take the sting out of what I had said, but I stopped. I had said what I wanted.
We drove in silence for several minutes, then Tricia said in a dreamy voice, not looking up, "At least you came and got me."
I drove on, feeling more like a legal guardian than a friend. I'd gone over to the other side, to the side of her parents, to the side of society at large. "What else could I do?"
"You still love me." She curled her fingers against the window as though she were touching the hair of someone's head.
I drove ahead, construction barrels intruding into my lane, making me keep both hands on the wheel.
"You're my best friend, Jenny."
"Yes . . ."
"I think you're beautiful." Tricia pushed her hand against the window. "I'm going to come live with you in Austin when I get better. I'm going to do it this time." She was quiet for a while, looking out the window, then I heard her begin to sob. "I'm so sick of this place."
All I could think about was the possibility of Tricia marooned in my living room, there every day, sobbing, wanting to be everyone's best friend—while Alexis slipped in and out of the kitchen, patient, cautious, waiting for Tricia to pull herself together and leave.
I changed lanes to stay on 45, keeping my thoughts to myself.
I took her to the office of Dr. Brown, the family psychologist, and called her parents. She continued to thank me for finding her. "You came back for me, Jenny. You came back."
"Oh stop already," I said. "You're my friend."
"I'm so happy. Thank you. You're right. I need help."
"Shhhh-shh-shhh. We'll be home soon. You just need to rest."
"Are we going home now?"
I stayed with her all night, waiting for the drug to wear off, waiting for her to start making sense. Mostly, I listened. We might have felt like girls again, lying on her bed, hearing the perennial gurgle of the fish tank, but nothing she said made all that much sense to me, and I said little. I'd broken through to some very well-protected part of her, but it was coming out in an uncontrolled rush; she seemed to be making a list of everyone she had ever known, describing them all, saying how much she loved them, telling stories about them that made her laugh and laugh, with abandon, as though at any minute she was going to explode in tears. I heard all about everyone she had known in prison, at Inside Out, in high-school and earlier—she even told me about myself, saying, as she had said before, that she first knew we were going to be friends the day during elementary school when we had stolen a wagonful of bananas from a neighbor's tree. "You never gave a shit, Jenny. You did just what you wanted. We had to be friends, because we're exactly the same." During all this, I lay perfectly still, letting her say what she wanted. When she reached out to hold my hand, I let her. When she moved over to hold me, I put my arm around her. I ran my hand over her neck, wanting to make her better. I realized only now, as she fell quiet and watched my eyes, how much she had missed me, how much she wanted me to know her. If I could have said something—anything to show her I understood—I would have, but nothing came. I couldn't even say I loved her. Instead, I kissed her, and I held her, hoping it would not be the last time.