[Today, we continue with Guard This House, a four-part portrait of a family told from four points of view. Each chapter occurs during one of the four seasons, and takes its title from one of the four celestial animals corresponding to the cardinal directions in Chinese Astronomy.]
PART TWO: THE GREEN DRAGON – NICHOLAS – SPRING
Alice rolls over in bed to face me and tells me she never wants to leave her Nueva México. I pull her closer and tell her she’s never seen Manhattan. She wrinkles her nose and says it’s too dirty. Plus, she says, she’s heard the whiteys there don’t like Pueblos. I kiss her slow and whisper that she ought to be careful with those comments; she may run me out to California. I hear the sky there is just as pretty. She sits up in bed. I pull her back down and tell her I was kidding, I love the kingdom of Santa Fe. She yawns and slips out of my hold, puts on her thong and stretches. The alarm clock beeps; it’s officially 8 a.m. I sit up and watch her tall coffee toned body bend. Her long black hair spills forward. I admire her long legs and the sexy curve of her hips and breasts. Even after the first time we slept together she wasn’t embarrassed to stretch naked. She looks up at me with those big black eyes and suddenly I want them to soak me into their sadness, their quiet, their somber mystery.
Alice says she’s going to count all the St. Francis statues in the city today for her religion class. I tell her meet me at Rubella’s for lunch. I’m in the mood for pasta. She says I need to learn to appreciate home cooking. I shouldn’t let them take my money for shitty food. I tell her it’s my treat. My grandfather just sent me a little gift for springtime.
She says she didn’t know that there was such a holiday. In her family they take care of the elders, not the other way around. Come on Alice, I say. It’s not like you see your grandparents every day. She says every Sunday. They tell her stories about what the old Santa Fe was like, before the casinos. I say that my grandfather doesn’t live 10 minutes away. She says respect for elders isn’t a Pueblo thing. It’s a human decency thing. I tell her that accepting money from a grandparent, excuse me, elder, isn’t disrespectful. What am I supposed to do, send the five back? She says I should do the proper thing and spend it on him, buy him a box of candy and a postcard. No, I say, not five bucks, five grand. She asks if I’m kidding. I tell her I wouldn’t be able to be here in Santa Fe, with her, if it weren’t for that check.
I had just graduated from Marymount College in New York and my math major wasn’t exactly inspiring me to do something with my life. Over lunch, my old advisor had told me about a job opportunity, crunching numbers for his architect friend in New Mexico. I was sick of living with my parents and sick of tutoring high school kids for their SAT’s. It sounded like the perfect adventure, especially when my grandfather said he could help fund the trip.
I tell Alice I didn’t force my grandfather to give me money. Oh, she says, but I’m sure you happened to mention that four or five g’s would really save your ass. I tell her it makes him happy. Does it make you or him happy? Both I say, and I’m not going to be embarrassed for having someone who wants to help me. And what exactly is he helping you with, Nicholas? Wandering museums? But we met at the Wheelwright, I say.
Alice pulls on her cotton tank top and hippy green skirt. I tell her she should be back on campus studying. She says careful, I may run her back to her dorm room. I stand up and throw on some boxers. Whenever I wake up alone in New Mexico I miss my parents’ massive apartment on 110th and Riverside Drive. As kids, my younger sister Brielle and I had nicknamed it the Temple.
Alice throws me a piece of mail from the stacked pile. I tear it open. It’s in an invite to Brielle’s graduation back in New York, a mere month from now. Thinking of Brielle makes me homesick. Thinking of Brielle’s age makes me queasy. I stuff the decorated notecard back into the envelope. I want to take Alice out to dinner tonight and invite her to fly home with me but Alice is one year older than Brielle, and six younger than me and she doesn’t believe in restaurant food or rich people.
I throw the envelope back onto the shabby dining room table. Alice asks me if I need a ride to work and as usual I say no thanks. Even while we connect over architecture and a love for Winds of War and even though she surprises me with her knowledge of poverty in South East Asia and volunteer work in New Orleans, she isn’t ready for me yet. She has much more life experience ahead and she’ll realize my age doesn’t make me more mature. So I soak her in for a little while. When you find someone like that, despite the age gap, you don’t let her go because then you realize that at only 24 you’re an old man choosing death over life.
When we first met at the Wheelwright I asked Alice if she knew the time. She obviously wasn’t wearing a watch. She told me she was taking a class on the history of reservations in America. I told her I wasn’t planning to stay at the museum too long, had to get back to the shop. She said that how long you stay isn’t important, it’s how you stay. She looked at least 23 and her serious tone inspired me to point at the nearest tent in the exhibit and say that the Apache were my favorite tribe. She told me I obviously hadn’t met a Pueblo then. I offered my hand and said Nicholas Feiner. She said welcome to the West. I asked her if she’d be interested in giving the new guy the lowdown. Only if you buy me a drink, she’d said and gave me her number. I called her the next afternoon and we met at Robinson’s Hutch. She brought a fake ID and paper to list the names and addresses of the best places in town.
Alice picks up the envelope from the table. I tell her my parents will probably be sending the plane ticket soon. She asks if this is what she gets for agreeing to not label the relationship. She paces around the room, eyes welling up. She says she knew I had commitment problems, but she’d never imagined that I’d just leave, that I could regard her as so worthless. I’m frozen, terrified of interrupting her and turned on by her rage. So, she says. Were you gonna leave a note on the bed so that when I rolled over to fuck you again I’d get the message? I tell her it’s not a one way ticket. Oh, she says and sits down at the edge of the bed. I feel like a shmuck for not offering to bring her home with me. But she must understand; it’ll take years together and for her to at least turn 21.
I tell her I’ll probably be home for just four days. She says that it’ll be good for me to see my parents. Yeah, I say, I can try to score another check. I mean, lots of elder bonding time. I wink. She asks me what they’re like. I tell her they’re in their 60’s. Dad’s a suit, mom’s a play producer. Actually last fall they finalized their divorce and Dad moved out of the Temple.
She says poor Brielle. She understands what it is to have a tough home life. Her dad had thyroid cancer last year, during her senior year of high school. And her mother was too busy taking her father to his chemo appointments during the day and working night shifts at the 24 hour Stop and Shop. And all Alice wanted was someone to listen to her vent, scream, and relay her fear of her father dying. After that year of hoping her dad would survive, she’d give anything for an older brother. I feel an imaginary tiny muscle tear in my stomach. I swear I feel something pull on my insides.
Part Three Continues Next Thursday
Jamie Carr is a junior at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. Her writing has been published in The Lettered Olive and Polyphony. She’s spent summers studying poetry and fiction at the University of Virginia, Emerson College, and with her college in Spoleto, Italy. A native of Manhattan, she plans to attend an MFA program and eventually move back to New York.