“Your stepbrother’s hot,” Hannah whispers. Notes for our Hamlet presentation scatter the table but her attention has drifted. “Why didn’t you tell me he was hot?”
This is her first semester back after three years in Missouri, but I’d just assumed she’d gotten the memo.
“Dan’s not my stepbrother,” I say, flipping ahead in my notebook.
From the sound of it, Dan’s making more of a fuss than expressly necessary to drink milk straight from the carton. Footsteps pad needlessly on linoleum, drawers open and close. Three times I hear the hum of the refrigerator. As if he needs to check it that many times. It’s not like the two food items in our fridge are procreating.
He must have heard what she said. Now he’s sticking around to see how long he can hold her attention.
The gambit works. Hannah remains absorbed in his improvised kitchen mission. A broad, theatrical yawn soon follows and I seriously consider hurling my Complete Works of Shakespeare at him. Truth is, Dan never yawns like that when he’s actually tired or bored. This yawn is all about the stretch. Reaching his arms above his head has the effect of hiking up his Misfits t-shirt, offering a peek at lithe muscles and homespun tattoos—both leftovers from his stint in reform school.
It’s a trap. She’ll start trying to make out the Latin inscription curving above his waistband. He’ll glance over just in time to catch her looking. Cue signature smirk.
The clincher is the way his eyes and his face never seem to agree. From the nose down it’s a perfectly charming smile. Venture a little farther north and something else is waiting. A question, a jibe, a dare, an ironic inside joke. When I first met him, it freaked me out the way his gaze had the tendency to linger. I’ve never had his enthusiasm for eye contact.
Even though he dropped out two years ago, his reputation at St. Anthony’s as a Brooding Bad Boy survives to this day. Thinking about it now, dropping out might have had a lot to do with securing that legacy. Between his vintage ‘59 Chevy and tattooed hands, he more than fits the profile. Most people tend to compare him to James Dean. I tend to point out that he doesn’t own a comb. Early on, my knowledge of his comb-ownership status surprised people.
Back when we went to school together, it took everyone a while to realize we even knew each other. It’s not as if we look related, probably because we’re not related. Dan’s hair is sandy but he doesn’t really come off as a blond. More like he was supposed to be dark but gave up before he got there. Half Puerto Rican, I’ve always been a much more forthcoming brunette.
Beyond our differences in height, muscle mass and ethnicity, we just didn’t seem to have anything obvious in common. Studious Sophie and Dangerous Dan, the pair of us occupied vastly different spheres. I lugged around a cello case and a backpack stuffed with honors textbooks. Dan rarely brought more than a joint and a black eye to class. Where my academic career has so far been marked by orchestra and honor roll, his time at St. A’s revolved primarily around not attending.
And yet, until the end of my sophomore year, he and I arrived every morning in the same car. Other girls cat-fought over who got a chance in the backseat. I rode shotgun.
“How do you know Daniel Cole?” people would ask the first time they spotted me climbing out of his turquoise panel truck.
“Well,” I would say. “We sort of live in the same house.”
Once word spread, I quickly became an unwilling source for Dan information. Girls asked if he was single, teachers asked why he’d missed class again, stoners asked if he could hook them up. After he dropped out, becoming more myth than man, he became my byline—Sophia Ramos? Guess who her brother is.
The story stuck.
I finish my flashcards for the presentation and tap the edges straight. Hannah and I are supposed to be analyzing Ophelia’s coded use of flowers. Fennel for flattery, rue for regret, daisies for innocence and heartbreak—think, “he loves me, he loves me not”. We don’t have long to finish. It’ll be eight soon and nothing good ever happens here after eight.
Hannah, for her part, has given up on homework entirely. The only flowers she has any interest in analyzing are the ones etched into Dan’s skin. I know about the gardenias on his back—he spent most of his pizza shop wages in junior year getting them filled in at shady tattoo parlors in Detroit. Then there’s the rose blooming on the side of his neck, almost to his jaw—a souvenir from the months he spent in Ohio last fall supposedly doing “farm work”. Just beneath the rose petals, looping cursive spells out the word “Defy”. The first time I saw it I had to stifle a laugh. Yes, we get it; you’re very edgy and rebellious.
Dan’s eyes catch mine just as I’m about to roll them. I think he’s gloating. Cocky asshole. It’s always annoyed me to see girls stumbling over themselves for him. Part of me always wants to shake them and shout, “It’s just Dan! He spends as much time playing Xbox as he does raising hell in the city! And when we play, he loses!”
The alarm clock on my phone chirps. It’s a quarter to eight. I don’t want to have to explain to Hannah why I haven’t invited her over all year. Before she moved down south to stay with her biological father, she practically lived here. That was back when it was just Mom and me. Sure, my mom was just as broke and impulsive then, but at least things were quiet. After Hannah moved, it was as if our lives started trading pieces. Her mom got a divorce and a one-year sobriety chip. My mom met Frank. Now that Hannah’s back, her house is the quiet one.
“Hey.” I tap the table to get her attention. “Maybe I could walk with you to the bus stop?”
She looks at me like I’m the single most horrible thing that has ever happened to her.
“My mom’s gonna want to make dinner soon,” I say. “And she’s not expecting company.”
I feel like a bitch for implying Hannah isn’t wanted, but it’s for her own good.
“I can give her a ride home,” Dan says.
For all his obnoxiousness, I appreciate his sense of perception. It helps that my lie was as obvious as her interest in him. Last time my mom cooked dinner, it was Christmas. And our mashed potatoes came out of a box.
Sure, he probably has ulterior motives, but his offer works and Hannah’s suddenly eager to leave. He holds open the door and she flashes me an over-the-shoulder grin. March is almost over but late snow still carpets the roads. Outside, the Chevy draws a deep breath, taking Hannah back to her single-parent-household where nothing hurts anymore. I’m left alone to listen to the clock tick. When the silence breaks, Dan won’t be around to invite me down to play video games.
I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that he and I really “get along”—he still annoys the crap out of me and I usually make a point to pester him back—but we don’t outright hate each other anymore. Early on in our forced co-habitation, Dan and I waged an all out war (it may come as a surprise, but the Honors Student and the Probable Criminal were none too keen to be crammed under the same roof). He found the anonymous blog I used to keep and read it aloud to all his friends. I “accidentally” slipped details of his myriad liaisons to one of the girls he’d been sleeping with. At home, we tampered with shampoos, dyed loads of laundry pink, and ate each other’s food on purpose. Maybe we thought, if we hated each other enough, our parents would break up.
It’s hard now to remember a time when Mom and Frank were ever happy. There were a few weeks, just after they met, when Mom would scrub the table raw and dig out tubes of lipstick she hadn’t worn in years. When Frank first started coming by, he laughed so loud the whole house felt full of him. Approximately five seconds later, they decided it would be a great idea for him and Dan to move in (spoiler alert: it wasn’t). Five seconds after that, Frank took up semi-permanent residence on the couch.
The new-relationship-honeymoon-phase skipped ahead to the screaming-at-each-other-constantly phase. Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t a fantastic idea to move in with someone equally broke, equally drunk, and equally a single parent. Especially if he’s someone you barely know.
But despite Dan and my best efforts, they didn’t break up. Not because they don’t love each other (they don’t), and not that the romance is gone (it is)—they just don’t have the money, or the energy to break out of their inertia. They live together because it’s cheaper; they go to the bar together because it’s convenient.
For a while now, Mom and Frank have lived on a clockwork schedule. Even though they would probably prefer to stay out until last call, they have a habit of pairing their beers with shots of bourbon. It’s unofficial bar policy to cut them off after round number six. With an average of two rounds an hour, they usually get back about…
The minute hand twitches, 8:06.
Angry shouts swell from the end of the block just as I finish loading homework into my bag. The familiar racket warbles into focus the closer they stumble. My breath fogs the windowpane and their shadows stretch long under the stuttering streetlights.
A good head taller than Mom is and at least twice her width, Frank is built like an ex-linebacker with a beer gut, which also happens to be exactly what he is. Mom’s barely taller than I am but so skinny that the seat of her jeans always hangs loose. Peroxide-pale hair brings out the ruddiness of her complexion from too much booze.
“Then what was it you were trying to say?” The high-pitched shriek is Mom.
“Listen, I didn’t ever say you were nothing; you don’t ever listen.” The unintelligible garbage is Frank.
I lock my bedroom door from the inside and tug on a parka before sliding my window open. Once the yelling gets inside the house, I climb the window frame up to the roof. They move through their catalogue of greatest hits: Money (we’re still paying bills on that goddamn get-rich-quick scam you signed up for); Monogamy (do you think I don’t see you talking to other men); and Me. Frank says I don’t respect him, and I should’ve started paying rent when I turned eighteen, like Dan did. Mom says I don’t have to do either. It matters to her that I’m graduating and she throws the word “valedictorian” like a knife. He counters with the word “hypocrite” (you dropped out when that beaner knocked you up!)
My headphones soon blare Arcade Fire. Laika is usually frenetic enough to block out everything but I can still feel the vibrations of feet stomping and doors slamming. This is a bad one.
The sunset bleeds its last light and dusk settles over our suburb. Identical, single-story rambler houses stretch out in a sea of sloping asphalt roofs and vinyl siding. Only the trees interrupt the unrelenting sameness of the grid. I remember trick-or-treating when I was little and peering in through the doorways of strangers’ homes. I already knew where the bathroom would be, and the kitchen, and my room if I lived there. Sometimes I saw an exact replica of our floor plan, only in reverse. Like a mirror image. I used to imagine that maybe, in one of those mirror houses, there might live another little girl, and her name would also be Sophie. She would be my twin and my opposite. Identical to me, only inverted. She would have a mole on the right side of her chin and a burn on her left elbow. She would probably love lemonade and musicals but hate peppermints and calculus. She would have a dad but not a mom, and everyone would think she was half Puerto Rican even though she really wasn’t. Maybe she would speak backward too. Mirror-Sophie would tell people “I hate you” years before she told them “I love you”.
Headlights flood the darkening street and I shield my eyes. Only three songs have played. I’m surprised to see Dan back so soon.
“That was fast,” I call out, and I’m more relieved than puzzled. Once upon a time, maybe we did hate each other. More and more, it’s just something we play at. I call him a prick, he calls me a nerd, then I beat him at Soul Calibur.
My headphones come off just in time to hear something shatter inside the house. I wince. “I think that was one of the plates.”
He gives a dry laugh and heaves himself up the porch rail. “What will we eat off now?”
The only dishes we really use in this house are mugs for coffee and glasses for water. When it comes to food, we usually just graze directly from the bag or box.
Dan dangles one leg over the edge of the roof and turns to me. “Do you think the cops’ll end up coming?”
“Sounds like it.” I shrug as the sound of smashing glass rings from below. “Seriously though, it’s only been like fifteen minutes. I thought you and Hannah were gonna…you know, hang out.”
“Nah.” Dan smiles, but it’s a Dan-Smile. Below the nose it’s all nonchalant cheer. In the eyes, I’m not sure.