China By Marisa Fein
Adult Short Story Third Place Winner, Washington, D.C.
Halfway from South Jersey to North Carolina, Adam nudges me awake from my nap in the passenger seat.
“Are you hungry?” he asks. I wipe the drool that has pooled in the corners of my mouth. I can feel the indent of the seatbelt on the right half of my face.
“I was having a dream,” I say. Something about a yellow house. Inside, gray walls. Ashes in place of a white picket fence.
“There’s a rest stop coming up,” he says. I don’t answer but it doesn’t matter, his turn signal is already on and he slowly inches into the next lane. His car smells like old popcorn, the kind that’s been left in a bowl and forgotten. If I looked, I would probably find old kernels in the carpet of his backseat.
As he turns off onto exit 126, I reach over and squeeze his arm. His muscles are tense as he steers with both hands. On the radio plays an ad for Stan’s Furniture Emporium. They’re going out of business. There’s a big sale. I watch Adam and for a second I think he’ll look at me and his eyes, blue and always half closed like he’s about to fall asleep, will meet mine and we’ll smile and I won’t have to say anything at all. Instead he glances into the rearview mirror to check the boxes that have been strategically stacked in the backseat. Even though the china inside has been wrapped thoroughly in layers and layers of Bubble Wrap and, after we ran out, old dishtowels. I swear that, even over Stan’s southern accent and the hum of Adam’s ’98 Corolla, I can hear them rattle.
It’s cold for September and I wish I’d worn a jacket. It’s jacket weather, the kind where the sun is warm but the occasional breeze is cold, cold enough for me to shiver as Adam lies the blue blanket on the grass. Before I met him, I would have thought this strange, to sit on a blanket and eat sandwiches in the grass of a rest stop. We can hear the highway behind us, the vibration of cars driving by. Occasionally, the roar of a truck as it pulls into the parking lot in front of us. I read a story once about girls going missing in parking lots like these, running away from home and hitchhiking with truckers and then never being heard from again. A few years ago, somewhere in central Pennsylvania, they found a collection of bones buried in a ditch along 495, unidentifiable other than being young and female.
Adam sits down and pulls out a plastic-wrapped sandwich from his bag. His back is hunched. He leans forward and his hair falls into his eyes. He needs a haircut, I think, as I sit beside him and reach into his bag until I find the second sandwich. He says something but I don’t hear it. I’m thinking of what an X-ray of his spine would look like. Maybe like a parenthesis mark, a half circle.
“Sarah? Are you listening Sarah?” he’s looking at me and chews slowly, his eyes half closed.
“Sorry,” I say. My sister says I apologize too much. “I was just thinking.” I unwrap my sandwich and take a bite. It’s peanut butter and jelly. The peanut butter is the crunchy kind, the kind I don’t like. The bits of peanuts always get stuck in my teeth.
“We should have left earlier. We’re going to hit traffic.” His voice is even, it always is. This was one of the things I had liked about him, when we first met, when we both were undergrads. But that was almost five years ago, back when we had talked about moving to the West Coast, when his parents still paid our electric bills after we moved in together following graduation. Back when he had woken me up once, sometime past three in the morning, to see the first snowfall of that winter, and he needed me to see how, if you squinted, the snow looked like falling stars. It was like we were in space, he had whispered. I agreed even though I didn’t see it. To me, it was just snow.
“We’re not in a hurry,” I say.
“But we could have avoided it. The traffic, I mean,” he says. My sandwich tastes like plastic.
“Your family was really nice,” I say. “Your aunt Emily especially. After we get home remind me and I’ll send her back her dishtowels.”
“Ok,” he says, and then, “thank you.”
I was a freshman in college when my own grandmother died. She had been sick, cancer blooming in the spaces around her lungs, snaking its way through her veins to her stomach, past her heart, and eventually settling into her neck. The grieving began while she was still alive, after the doctor had given us a prognosis that she wouldn’t make it until Christmas. I hadn’t known you could mourn a person who was still alive.
For Adam, it was sudden. A phone call on a sunny day. The type of call that you expect to get in the middle of the night, not on your walk to work. It was a brain hemorrhage. A vein had burst like a bubble while she slept. He didn’t tell me until he got home that evening, after taking off his jacket, after complaining that his new shoes were hurting his toes. In my surprise I had asked the first thing that had come to mind. Do you think it hurt?
They had been close, Adam and his grandmother, although I had never met her, or any of his family before this weekend. He talked about her a lot. Her at his eighth birthday party, laughing after his mother had forgotten to take the ice cream cake out of the freezer to thaw, the whole thing as solid as a rock. Teaching him how to tie a tie on the morning of his bar mitzvah, his father having left him and his mother the year before. And then, last year, on January 1, calling to tell him that she had finally done it, bought an old Mustang that she planned to “spruce up” and drive across the country. She had always wanted to see the Grand Canyon. She said she was going to win big in Las Vegas and, when she did, would buy him a matching car. You’re too old to be driving that piece of shit Corolla, she said.
Back in the car, I ask about the Mustang, about who she left it to.
“My Uncle Jim,” he says.
“The one with the lazy eye? And the mustache?” I ask.
“Yeah, he’s the one.” I want to ask why she didn't leave it to him but he looks so tired now, his head leaning back against the headrest. I want to ask why she didn't leave him anything other than the china in the backseat. The collection of plates and cups, a casserole dish to add to our growing collection, tiny forks that we’ll never use, that I don’t even know what are supposed to be used for. My own grandmother had a similar china collection, one that was patterned with pastel butterflies and red peonies. I hated eating ice cream out of the bowls as a kid because of the ladybugs that crawled around the bottom. I imagined them coming to life, wiggling their way through my two scoops of mint chocolate chip and making their way onto my spoon, me mistaking them for a piece of a maraschino cherry. I realize I have no idea what happened to the set after she died.
His grandmother hadn’t been a wealthy woman. Not poor either, she lived alone in a modest-size house, her mortgage almost paid off. After hearing of her death, I had half hoped that this would mean that we would now be able to pay off some of our growing debt, the student loan payments we avoided and never talked about. I told myself it was OK to think like this, to hope that something good could come from her passing. I was being pragmatic. I had never met the woman.
But instead, we got china. After the funeral, while the rest of the family stood in the kitchen, making small talk through mouthfuls of deviled eggs and stale cookies from the discount grocery store, Adam led me to the china cabinet. The dishware itself was ugly, patterned with gaudy flowers in bright pinks and oranges. I didn't tell Adam that I was disappointed, that I had half expected to see butterflies and ladybugs.
Just before four, he says that we should get gas before we hit rush hour traffic.
“It’s Sunday,” I say. “There isn’t any rush hour on Sunday.”
“You know what I mean,” he says. “We’ll be close to D.C. soon. There’s always traffic around D.C.” He taps his fingers against the steering wheel in time to the music on the radio, a song from the ’90s that I know all the lyrics to, but can’t remember the artist who sings it.
As he turns onto the off-ramp, a sharp, almost 90-degree turn, the boxes shift in the backseat. There’s no rattling, just a subtle slide of cardboard against the worn upholstery. He bites his lip as he watches the movement in the rearview mirror.
“We should move the boxes to the trunk. They won’t be able to move as much there,” I say. I’m feeling protective of them all of the sudden, of this ugly collection of china packed away in the backseat.
“Our suitcases are in the trunk,” he says.
“We can move them,” I say. I’m watching him, the way he stares straight ahead, almost bored. He doesn't look at me when he talks.
“They’re fine in the backseat,” he says.
“Adam,” I say, “let me do this. I’ll move them when we stop. It’ll take five minutes.” He doesn’t say anything as he pulls into the gas station and turns off the car. We sit for a minute, the engine still making that faint ticking noise that Adam likes to complain about. I stare at my hands. The collection of lines that, up close, look like paper cuts. He clears his throat like he’s going to say something but then opens the door and is gone. There’s a tightness in my chest. There’s a squeezing dead center, where I thought my heart was when I was a kid. I picture a fist wrapped around a stress ball, fingers clenched. It hurts and hurts until it doesn't, until I open the car door and begin moving the boxes of china to the trunk. Until I forget the pain was ever there at all.