by John Abbott
Leo jolted awake in his chair when he heard the front door of the building creak open and an accompanying gust of wind. He didn’t know how long he had slept. The last detail he remembered was watching snow fall by the glow of the streetlight outside the window. He stood up, letting the newspaper fall from his lap. He blinked twice and rubbed his eyes before walking out his front door and into the hallway. The building’s hallway reminded him of an old hotel with its worn shag carpet, chandeliers, and faded yellow-gold wallpaper. It smelled like old newspapers because the downstairs neighbor collected them in twine wrapped bundles that nearly blocked her door. He crouched down and peered over the dark wood banister at the person walking in. Realizing it wasn’t his mom; he stood up.
When the woman raised her head, he recognized Sadie, the college student roughly his age, who lived in the apartment next door. They had gone out a couple times, usually to a movie or the coffee shop down the street. Each time they had ended up at her place afterwards, on the cold-to-the-touch leather couch where they’d make out for a while. But during the span of a month Leo had seen her with other guys several times, though he had never mentioned this to her.
She smiled up at him as she took off her charcoal gray scarf and black gloves. Snowflakes melted and dripped down the strands of her black curly hair. She was an exceptionally pretty girl. Tall and lithe like a dancer. Her wide smile and tiny nose made her impish expression all the more charming.
With her midwestern accent she asked Leo what he was doing. He told her he was waiting up for his mom.
“Do you wait up for your mom every night?”
“Only when she’s out on a date.”
She laughed at his response and Leo wondered if she thought he was joking. She headed up the steps leaving a trail of snowy footprints on the carpet. Outside her door she unlaced her boots, yanked and tugged at them as if they were choking the life out of her feet. After she nearly toppled over, she braces herself against the wall. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold and puffed out from the exertion. Leo tried, but couldn’t quite manage to keep from laughing.
“I knew I shouldn’t have bought this pair,” she said.
“Why didn’t you just undo all the laces?”
“Probably because I’m lazy,” she said as she finally got out of her boots. “So is your mom really on a date?”
“And you’re staying up till she gets home?”
He nodded again and started to prepare an explanation for her but she cut him off.
“Then why don’t you come over to my place? You’ll still be able to hear her when she gets back.”
“That sounds nice.”
“What would you like to drink?” she asked once they were inside.
“Whatever you’re having.”
He took a seat on the familiar leather couch while she went to the kitchen. It felt strange to sit in an apartment that was identical to his own, yet completely different. Both featured hardwood floors and gracefully arched openings between the living and dining rooms. The peeling paint on the ceiling and the stain blotched walls looked similar to his apartment too and. the old radiator, underneath the windowsill occasionally sputtered and gasped like it was pleading for someone to end its misery, exactly like the one in his apartment. But when it came to the decorating the two apartments seemed like different worlds. Sadie’s furniture looked expensive and new compared to the thrift store bargains he and his mom owned. And her walls were covered with framed Salvador Dali prints and posters of rock and roll bands. Tacky, pastoral paintings graced the walls of his apartment.
After a couple minutes, Sadie returned with two glasses of red wine. She handed one to him before sitting down on the couch.
“Are you cold?” she asked. “The heat doesn’t work too well but I could get you a blanket.”
“I’ll be fine. The heat doesn’t work well at my place either so I’m used to it,” he said.
“You want to know a secret?” She curled her feet under her and leaned in like she was about to whisper in his ear. He could smell her perfume, something sweet and fresh that reminded him of honeysuckle.
“Sometimes I drink a whole bottle of wine just to stay warm,” she said. “That’s bad isn’t it.”
“No, it’s not bad.”
Leo didn’t drink often. When he did he never had more than two or three drinks. Not because he was morally against it or because his father, when his parents were together, drank too much. His reason was simply that he didn’t have much experience with it and he had no idea how he would act after several drinks. He took a sip from his glass. He didn’t know good wine from bad but nevertheless he told her he liked it.
“Thanks,” she said as she drank from her glass. “I wasn’t going to but I have to ask; why do you stay up till your mom gets home?”
His first thought was to say that she needed taking care of but he didn’t want to sound like some jerk who thinks women need men to protect them. At the same time he didn’t want to bore her with his family problems.
“I don’t know the guy she’s out with. Until I meet him, and find out he’s not going to hurt her, I’ll worry.”
“I think it’s sweet of you,” she said. “Not many guys would do that.”
Leo smiled a little too hard. Whenever someone called him sweet he thought of Marjorie Ellsworth. They had dated for a few months in high school until she wrote him a letter telling him he moved too slowly. He still remembered the last line of her letter, I’m really sorry to break this off because you really are the sweetest boy I know. Even though he burned the letter, he still felt the same prickle of embarrassment when he recalled those words.
It’s true he hadn’t even kissed Marjorie until they had gone out for a month and hadn’t touched her breasts until she placed his fingertips on her light brown nipples. Of course, they never had any sex. His hesitancy was rooted in the way men treated his mom, as if she was nothing more than a sexual object. That, plus years of hearing his mother and whatever guy she had brought home having sex in the next room caused Leo to wilt whenever he got to a certain point with women.
Other people had told Leo how sweet he was but it had never eased the embarrassment of bailing his mom out of jail when she got arrested for public indecency. And it never took away the shame of not being able to protect his mom from his father when he was young.
They sat in silence for a few minutes while they both finished their wine. He enjoyed her company. Even when they weren’t speaking it felt comfortable and helped keep his mind off his mom and her date. Her mom usually stayed out until two o’clock when the bars closed and it was only eleven.
“I’m going to have another glass,” she said. “Do you want one?”
He nodded. When she left again he studied the posters on the wall. Most of the bands he didn’t recognize. He realized that he knew very little about Sadie, except that she was from Chicago and had come to Kalamazoo to study psychology at Western Michigan University.
When she returned, he asked her about school. He listened to her talk about psychological disorders, and watched her gestures. She extended her wine glass away from her body in quick, energetic motions as if to punctuate her sentences. Each time, the deep red liquid sloshed to the rim but didn’t spill. Then she stopped talking and touched his wrist.
“Do you think we could consider this a date?”
Maybe it was the wine, or perhaps it was he found he really liked Sadie. But Leo decided he didn’t want to be thought of as just a sweet boy anymore. He set his glass alongside hers and kissed her. Her mouth tasted fruity, like the wine. He pressed his nose into the warmth of her neck where her intoxicating scent was strongest. His hand trailed down her body to the top of her jeans. He unbuttoned them. He paused, with his hand on her warm cotton underwear, expecting his hand to tremble, but it held steady. Flush, both in face and groin, his fingers moved through her bristly hair and rested on her sex.
Unwelcome memories of his mom’s lovemaking, the moans and the headboard thumping rhythmically against the wall, flooded his mind. He didn’t think he could continue until he remembered something he had heard when he first moved into the building.
On that first night, Leo had been in bed, acclimating himself to the new sounds of his apartment when he heard a woman. At first he thought it was his mom but then he realized the sound was coming through the cheaply made wall that separated his apartment from the one next door. He focused on the woman’s passionate cries and, though he felt guilty about his voyeurism, he took care of his erection. He didn’t know it then but the woman was Sadie.
It didn’t take much effort for that memory to replace the ones of his mom. Suddenly he felt feverish with the desire to make Sadie sound that way again. He touched her with an urgency that surprised both of them. It was as if, through his unbounded enthusiasm, he was making up for all the times he should have done this but couldn’t.
Then the front door of the building slammed shut so hard the pictures on her wall shook and Leo pulled away.
“Why are you stopping?” Sadie asked.
“That might be my mom.”
“She’s home now so it’s OK. Please keep touching me.”
But a voice from downstairs bellowed out a stream of curses. Leo rushed to the door and to the top of the stairs before Sadie had even buttoned her pants.
“You haven’t changed one bit,” the man said. “You’re still a cheap, fucking whore. Can’t keep your hands off any guy who buys you a drink.”
From where Leo stood he couldn’t see the man’s face. He could see both of them were drunk. The man faced his mom with fingers splayed and slapped her, leaving red imprints on her milky cheek. She looked up the stairs, saw Leo and mouthed his name.
Leo ran down the stairs just as the man turned around. Although Leo hadn’t seen him in ten years he knew it was his dad. They had the same brown eyes, olive skin, and heaviness in the jaw.
“What do you think you’re gonna do?” His dad asked. The smell of vodka filled the air and spittle formed at the corners of his mouth as he spoke. “I bet you’re still the same pussy you were ten years ago.”
That took Leo back to the night he had awakened to his mom’s scream and had run to their bedroom. His mom wore only a white slip and his dad had stood in a square of moonlight with a knife in his hand. The shadow of the blade seemed to stretch forever.
His father brought the blade to where his mother’s cleavage showed above her slip. Leo thought he meant to hack off her breast but his father skimmed it across her collarbone. Blood dripped onto her slip and Leo gasped. Surprised, his father turned around and charged him. He shoved the knife in his face. “You want some of this you little shit?” He pushed Leo to the ground. Leo lay on the carpet shaking his head, over and over, until he realized his dad had gone back to the bedroom for his clothes. His father had left and not come back.
Leo held onto the image of his mom in her bloody, white slip as he hit his dad in the nose. He swung again, and again, each time connecting with stubbly flesh. When his dad fell to the floor, Leo stood over him and continued to pummel his dad’s face until his hand ached and was sticky with blood. A voice yelled his name and he stopped.
Sadie was coming down the stairs. “Leo, you’re going to hurt him.”
“He’s my dad,” he said this as if she knew all the horrible things the man had done. “He hit my mom. I had to do something.”
Sadie looked stricken and then nodded.
“He cut her too—before. That’s why she always wears those scarves.” His mom turned at the mention of her scarf, her face frozen in surprise.
“I didn’t try to stop him then, I was too young,” Leo continued. “He probably would have killed me if I tried.”
As he spoke he realized he had never told anyone this before and here he was telling a girl he barely knew.
“Why are you telling her these things Leo?” His mom swayed drunkenly as she fidgeted with her scarf. “You are embarrassing me.”
He wanted to tell her to shut up for once but he knew there was no point. If he said anything back to her she’d start yelling, which would wake up everyone in the building. In the morning, she wouldn’t remember any of it, and not understand why the neighbors looked at her funny when they passed her in the hall.
Leo heard a raspy wheeze, no louder than a whisper, just before he felt the searing pain of a knife entering his left ankle. He jumped and the handle slipped out of his dad’s hand but the blade remained in Leo’s leg. His father moved his lips, causing a pinkish bubble of blood to pop. He pressed his palms flat on the ground and tried to stand but fell back on his chest, unconscious.
Leo’s mom screamed hysterically. Sadie tried to calm her down. Ignoring his father, Leo bent down and yanked the knife from his ankle. Blood gushed out but he didn’t try to stop it. He knelt next to his dad and tried to remember something good about him. His mind flashed back to a morning at breakfast when his mom had lectured his dad about never being there for his son.
“Every night you work late and come home drunk after Leo’s asleep,” she said. “It’s like he doesn’t even have a father.”
Leo looked down at his plate of runny eggs and burned toast. He waited for the sound of his dad hitting his mother but it didn’t come. His father leveled a finger at her instead and said, “Our son is lucky to have me around. I had no one. No father or mother. No brothers or sisters, No one gave two shits about me.”
They sat in silence. Leo, not wanting to upset his mother by leaving food on his plate, scooped the rest of his lukewarm eggs onto his toast and shoveled it into his mouth. Some of the yolk dribbled onto his chin. His dad sipped his coffee but didn’t touch his food. Later that day his father had taken him to the park and pushed him on the swings. It was a cold Saturday in late October and the park was empty except for a couple of bums sleeping on benches. The wind tugged at the newspapers they used as blankets and cut right through the jean jacket Leo wore. Though he couldn’t feel his fingers gripping the swing’s steel chains, Leo didn’t ask to go home. His dad pushed him higher than he had ever gone before. Each time he went up he thought the swing would wrap around the steel beam and he’d fly off. Gusts of wind made his eyes water so he had shut his eyes and focused on the sensation of flying, interrupted only by his dad hand on his back.
The next day Leo had waited patiently for his dad to wake up, hoping they would go to the park again. At noon his mom told him his dad hadn’t come home the night before.
“We should get you to the hospital,” Sadie said. “Let me get my coat. I’ll drive you.”
Leo sat down on the steps while she went upstairs. His ankle throbbed but it seemed manageable as long as he didn’t put pressure on it.
“What are we going to do about your dad?” his mom asked. “You can’t leave me here alone with him.”
He wanted to ask what the hell she had in mind when she went out with his dad again, but that would be like asking why she dated any of the losers she’d brought home over the years. Her response had always been the same, “I think it would be good for you to have a male role model.”
So instead, he said, “Go upstairs and lock yourself in the apartment. Then call the police.”
She backed her way up the stairs, one hand on the banister, staring at his father like he might suddenly spring to his feet and run after her. Leo heard the deadbolt slide shut and closed his eyes. He listened to the hum of the chandelier above him and the louder sound of the wind outside. The noises distracted him from the pain in his ankle. With each gust of wind, Leo’s mind drifted further from reality. He had done this as a child whenever he couldn’t deal with his parents, hoping if he thought really hard, that the sheer power of his will might transport him somewhere else. This time, when he opened his eyes he felt none of the usual disappointment, just a strange, detached calm.
He brushed his hair from his eyes and smelled Sadie on his fingers. A scent so primal that it brought back his erection and made him ache. He hoped his injury wouldn’t stand in the way of his coming home tonight with Sadie and finishing what they had started. Unless she asked, he wouldn’t mention that he just lost his virginity.
John Abbott is a writer, musician, and English instructor who lives with his wife and daughter in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His work has appeared in a variety of literary journals. His first short story collection is forthcoming from Underground Voices. For more information, please visit johnabbottauthor.com