Do Right By It


fiction by Molly Tolsky


If I start to bleed, I say no, no, stay in. “Stay in,” I’ve said to my kneecap. Still, my fingers won’t stop scratching. My boyfriend tells me to put band-aids over all the sores, so I do. Then he yells at me in bed and says he can’t put his mouth up against all that adhesive, that the morning sun shining down on gauze is not like the morning sun at all. I’ve woken up to him peeling them right off.

My older brother has been in California for a couple weeks and we don’t know when he’s coming back. I’ve got an achy feeling like it’s never, but I can’t bring myself to call him up. We’ve never had that kind of relationship. My mom’s been shooting steam out the eyes, convinced that he’s not feeling right and something bad’ll happen. She says it’s out of character. She wants us all to panic. I tell her that he’s got a good education, a good head on his shoulders and he’ll do right by it. I tell her to listen to Dad more—he’s never missed a day of work in his life because he refuses to change his schedule for anything, anyone. Do like him, I tell her. Just keep on with your days.

My boyfriend’s been pressuring me into a marriage. We’ve got this little one bedroom apartment on the northwest side of Chicago and it gets all the best light near dinner time. I fill a little plastic vase with a few flowers from the city garden down the block and set it on the table, cook him up a nice meal. The light’s the streamy kind, the kind that reminds you of god only because of all those movies and cartoons. My boyfriend, he’s a photographer. I think he soaks it up, sees the beauty in a pasta dinner and decides that is what marriage will be like, soft-focused and cushions on all the seats.

One day we broke up and got back together three times in a row. First he told me that he wasn’t sure I could love him, but he said it in a way that made me think it was because of my family. We’re well off, and he’s never had money. A year ago he broke his leg and got to delirium on a fancy kind of painkiller. All he did was tell the truth. He told me he was scared we couldn’t be together because he’d never make as much as my father, and I’d never learn how to deal with it. I was sure he was wrong, but he couldn’t remember saying anything in the morning. We got back together the first time because I hugged him for ten minutes without letting go. I just told my arms to stay. I can’t remember what happened with the second time but the third one, it was because I wouldn’t commit to a marriage, not even a future marriage, one without any exact date or detail. I remember what he said. He said, “I haven’t bought a ring or anything, but I sure know the size of your finger.” I held up my hands, both my palms facing him. All my skin was intact then, the fingertips so pink and unbleeding. He took it as surrender. We got in our bed and I could barely do anything but give back.

We had my brother and my friend Beth over for dinner once. It was my boyfriend’s idea, but I’ll admit I was excited. I had secret hopes for the two of them to hit it off, but made every wrong decision with care. Served meat without thinking that Beth was a vegetarian. My brother gave her a real hard time. He’d gone through a bottle of red before the greens. “I know what you’re up to,” he said to her. “You feel really bad about something. Maybe you let your pet hamster die when you were ten, forgot to feed him for a week. Or you spent your whole childhood eating off of Styrofoam plates. Don’t feel guilty about it,” he said. “I’m sure you’re the type of girl that never eats that much, anyway. Have three bites of a cow, go on.” He kept talking and Beth got so small in her chair, I think she just about slipped through the wooden slats of the back. I had never heard him speak that way, but it did not surprise me, either. He had a smile on his face. It was a new, better look. My boyfriend said, “Just keep it to yourself, will you?” He has no patience for blurry and prattling lines. Beth looked to me, mouth barely opened. I stayed tight and quiet. We picked at our meat while her eyes turned red. It’s hard for me to be a good friend.

When I think about my boyfriend for long, I wonder which day I will give in. I hate to even say it, but when I first found out that my brother had jetted away, I thought maybe that was my ticket out of this relationship, if ever I wanted such a thing. The question of marriage could drag until he was back, until my family wasn’t gasping with so much out-loud love. I thought that if he never came back, my boyfriend would get tired of waiting. All these thoughts happened in just those first few seconds when I found out, and then I got right to feeling the right things. The most shameful part of my day is when I hear somebody say ouch and I reach to cover my own head.

I play the same old-timey music over and over again in the apartment. I like to think I’m in a bookstore and run my fingers along the spines on my shelves like I’m shopping. If they’re not put to good use, my hands will keep scratching. My boyfriend shoots a lot of weddings and bar mitzvahs, but he says he likes kids’ birthdays best of all, even though they pay the least. Comes home with goodie bags filled with candy that tastes like paper. I’ve found folded up kid drawings in the pockets of his jeans more than once, always a stick figure with a camera around the stick neck and a cloud of black hair.

Mom calls here from the suburbs every other day. She likes to give me the forecast, wonders what kind of damage forty-five minutes can do to the sky. She asks how the boyfriend is but really wants to talk about the brother, if I think he owns the right kind of clothing for an escaped life. I imagine he’s doing just fine, but I can’t tell her this. I can’t tell her that sometimes I fantasize about following him out, that every so often I pull a suitcase from the closet just to fondle the zippers. She tells me I should call to bring him back in. Into what, I want to ask. I’ve got nothing to do with my hands, my days.

I’ve only met my boyfriend’s family once. He took me to a cousin’s wedding and I felt all the junky pieces of discomfort collect into a sharp ball inside, a scrap-metal gut. There was no bar and no band. He took a few photos but there were no other professionals, no caterers or coordinators or bowtied men serving toothpicked pastries. It was in the backyard of another cousin’s house in Massachusetts, and I think I would have been okay if it weren’t for the quiet. You could hear whispers from tables way out in the shade. You could hear tongues slapping against potato filled cheeks. At one point, I slipped in through the screen door and used the bathroom just to hear a flush. I clanked some bottles around, too, and pocketed a disposable hand towel that looked like it was leftover from the Fourth of July. Outside, his mom came up to us and said, “Honey, introduce me to your friend.”

She knew we had been dating for two years.

My mouth dried out. It looked like some of the younger relatives had snuck in a flask of something brown, all their ties stained wet. Near the end, the whole group sang a song, some family tradition. It sounded like “This Land is Your Land” but all the words were changed around, and all the family names were stuck in there. When it was happening, I held onto my boyfriend’s hand and tried not to laugh. He doesn’t know it but I saw him slip up and mouth some of the words in the last verse, like his lips just couldn’t keep from doing what his family wanted him to do all along.

Some nights I think about sending my brother a postcard, maybe one from one of those souvenir shops downtown. It could be the skyline or the lake, Chicago written in a bubble scream. The problem is that Mom says he keeps moving down the coast. Started in Santa Cruz and seemed to be headed straight to San Diego. He calls her from pay phones, leaves quick and choked-down messages. I hate the thought of a card arriving in a mailbox that’s no longer his. Envelopes are out of the fantasy, too. I know he’d never open it. He doesn’t like surprises, spoiled the first Christmas I can remember by telling me Dad had special ordered a trampoline in July. I could keep going, coming up with excuses if it means I don’t have to think about what I would write to him. Come home could only be my best stand-up impression.

I wish he would call me.

The last time I talked to my dad was when I went back home to take a set of old china that Mom didn’t want to keep anymore. She was wrapping each plate in newspaper, and he said something funny to me. He said a week or so before I was born, a nurse slipped up during a visit and told them the sex of the baby. She didn’t realize they wanted to be surprised. I was going to be a healthy boy, she said. They can tell these sorts of things by the heartbeat. One was supposed to be faster, girls or boys. My parents pretended to be happy, but who wishes for two of the same? When I came out, it was a miracle of organs. “Take care of that heart,” my dad said to me. “It might not even be the right one.”

My days will keep moving along, and band-aids do nothing to stop them. The thought of getting a phone call from a survey group makes my stomach turn. I can’t decide if I want to hang up or answer every question. Whenever I wash my hands, I imagine one of my rings slipping down the drain. I asked my boyfriend if he knew how to use one of those snakes that can suck things up. He said yes. I saw my brother use a snake thing once when we were kids. I had knocked something of his into the sink. I can’t remember what it was but I know when he pulled it out of the drain, it was knotted with a clump of my hair. I would have apologized, but we never had that kind of relationship.

Now I wait for a rib, a word, for something better to fall out of me slow.




Molly Tolsky