Soap bubbles foam around Suzie’s hands as she washes the cup, the small plate and the big plate from her dinner last night. Some of the bubbles take off and drift around her in the sun-warmed air, reflecting the world outside and multiplying the kitchen cabinets, the chairs, the table with the orange globe above it, and the phone on the wall. The phone on the wall. Suzie’s heart skips. They should call her today, tomorrow at the latest.
The phone makes a short, whirring sound as if it is about to ring, and trying not to make noise with the dishes, Suzie waits to see if it will. When it doesn’t, she unplugs the sink and reaches for the towel on the stove door. The towel takes the bubbles away from her hands, and color and sparkle turn into wet spots on the worn-out material.
Suzie smiles an inward smile. What amuses her, even in the midst of self-pity and dread, is the irony of it. Is her wish for escape going to be granted finally, ten years later, when completely forgotten, the bitter taste left in her mouth from the sleeping pills gone, and when all she is looking forward to is the summer vacation and her painting class.
Suzie wants to be brave. She has been brave for three days already. Can she do it for a bit longer? For as long as it takes? She doubts it. The waiting is becoming impossible to bear, the wading through the fog of her days harder and harder. She may need to talk to her sister. She starts in the direction of the phone, but it looks so bloated with bad news that she cannot make herself touch it. She decides to walk; her sister lives only a few blocks away.
Suzie goes to the entry closet and rummages through her shoes. The shelf has given way, and all the shoes are piled on the bottom. She untangles one of her favorite sandals and looks in the pile for its pair, in the meantime stepping into the shoe she has just taken out. Her foot slips out to the side, and Suzie almost loses her balance. She picks the shoe up and looks at it. The upper part of the sandal, woven from straw-like material, has been cut through with what seems like a sharp knife. The cut has been made on the outer side, close to the sole. Suzie turns the sandal in her hands, wondering how this could have happened, then she drops it aside and pulls out a pair of rubber flip-flops, bright blue and easy to find in the pile. Each of them has its straps cut off the same way. She searches the pile and looks at shoe after shoe that is mutilated, damaged, impossible to wear.
“Father!” she cries, and her father opens the living-room door as if he has been waiting for her call, the paper in one of his hands, his eyes big and moist behind his reading glasses. “Has anyone been here? Eileen maybe? With the kids?”
He takes his glasses off to take a better look at her as she sits on the floor surrounded by her useless shoes, her face distraught to a degree he doesn’t seem to understand but doesn’t question. “I have nothing to wear. What am I going to do?” Suzie whines, and she knows she is whining but cannot help it.
Her father goes back to his room without saying a word and closes the door behind him. He comes back in a minute holding a hundred-dollar bill, which he gives to her. Then, he is gone again to the safety of his armchair.
Pressure builds up behind Suzie’s eyelids. She rubs her temples until it hurts. “How about a bit of self-control?” she asks herself. “How about you leave Eileen out of this?” After a few minutes, she feels ready and stands up.
She drives, still barefooted, to the mall and buys a pair of slip-ons. The shoes are a pearl-rose color that will go well with the new dress she is going to wear tonight for the end of the school year dance, but not so well with the summer dress she has on. Then, she drives to the campus—she has things to do there and she wants to have lunch in the cafeteria. She likes the cream pies they have and the spicy pockets with feta cheese.
It is already half-past one, but there is a long queue, students, professors, even parents, lined up for a last meal before the summer takes them away to their small towns, suburbia, second homes, Paris, the mountains, wherever. Suzie takes a tray and waits her turn. No one comes after her, she is the last one in the queue. The food they have today is better than usual, she can see that when she looks at the other people’s trays. Arugula sandwiches, stuffed peppers, crème brulée. When her turn comes, only some of the stuffed peppers are left, and there are no more clean plates at the line. The three women behind the counter turn their backs on her and start cleaning and tidying the kitchen. She waits for them to notice her, but they don’t. “Hello, hi there…no more clean plates.” “What? Ah, we just loaded the dishwashers, there isn’t a single plate left. Sorry.” “What about the crème brulée?” “What about it? It’s gone.” “But I see some over there.” Suzie points at the inside shelves where the crème brulée crinkles its sugary, golden-yellow crust in ovenproof, individual bowls. One of the women comes to the window and closes it in front of her face, without further explanation. Suzie lifts her hand halfway to the window, and stays like that, giddy with confusion, not knocking, her hand in the air, a little tic pulling the corner of her upper lip.
The tower clock downtown chimes two times. The sound is clear and sharp like a thorn, and it startles Suzie into motion. She wanders out still holding the tray until she reaches the first benches and leaves it there.
The campus is like a ghost town. No people, no moving cars, only a few parked in the vast, empty parking lots. Abandoned bicycles line the buildings’ entries, or are chained to lampposts and trees. It is like that every summer. The students depart in haste and leave their bicycles behind. On the first day of school, the unclaimed ones will be offered in an auction. Suzie glances wistfully at a bright red, foldable bicycle, and goes through her to-do list where two items wait to be crossed out. She returns the key for the biology lab in the administration office, leaves a memo for her adviser on the door of his office, and reads the messages on the board. It’s still two-thirty. She goes to the library, where she picks a Spanish magazine to read, checking in the dictionary every word she is not familiar with. She does that until it’s time to go home and get ready for tonight.
Suzie barely knows the boy who will take her to the dance. He has beautiful hands, long, with delicate fingers like the hands of a piano player. She will ask him if he plays an instrument if she goes out with him a second time. He shows up at her house with a bottle of inexpensive champagne he says she doesn’t need to open now—it’s a present for her. She insists, however, and they drink it from glasses that had been too long in the cupboard and give the champagne a faint dusty flavor. He drinks very little, he will be driving, so she finishes her glass, then his, and pours the rest in her water bottle to take along. The plastic bottle expands from the carbonation, and by the time they reach the campus, is inflated like a balloon. The champagne fizzes and spills out when Suzie opens it, and she drinks quickly, laughing and shaking the excess from her chin and her dress.
Inside, she dances with the boy, with other boys, with two of her professors, and with her friend, Amy, who has had a crush on her since their junior year. The boy wants to take her home around eleven, but she refuses, she wants to dance until midnight. He says he is glad she is having such a good time. When he drops her off, he doesn’t want to come in, he will call her tomorrow. Not tomorrow, she says, tomorrow is not good, the end of the week should be better.
The next morning, Suzie wakes up on a soft, feathery cloud, surrounded by apple blossoms and blazing blue sky. The peaceful feeling she brought out of her sleep is still with her, a drowsy happiness that could only be experienced at the brim of awakening. She accepts what she sees without questioning it. The apple blossoms seem frozen in space, not a petal moves or trembles, and their stillness gives the impression of a deeper but forged third dimension like in a holograph. There is a cluster of blossoms no more than six inches away from Suzie’s eyes, and she examines them closely. The ones that are fully open are pure white, the buds have a tint of pink on the edges. She wants to smell them, even though the fragrance is all around her, she has felt it seeping into her dreams all night. She reaches to bring the twig closer and the shift of weight upsets her cloud. Fully awake now, she moves back to firmer ground.
She is on the apple tree that grows behind their townhouse. Someone had built a platform between the branches for the kids to play on. Last night, she brought her down comforter here and fell asleep watching the stars. Her dress is probably all wrinkled now. Suzie wishes she were still sleeping among the flowering branches, breathing the sweet smell and believing she was in heaven. She closes her eyes and tries to make herself comfortable again, but moves the wrong way and almost rolls off the platform. A wonder she has made it through the night without falling down.
At least her shoes must be safe here. No one could have climbed the tree without waking her. She sits up carefully and searches the folds of the comforter for her shoes. Her heart sinks as she pulls them out one by one. They have been cut the same way as her other shoes. Sharp, clean cuts close to the soles. She falls back into her makeshift bed, hugs the shoes close to her chest, and turns on her side, curling around them. Now the view through the branches is no longer the bright blue sky, but the thinly grassed open space behind their building.
The trees on the other side look peculiar. They have never been that close or that dense or that old and gnarled. Now they are dark and looming, with shaggy curtains of moss draping their limbs. The artificial pond in front of them has turned into a bog. The bog, in the shadows of the trees, is so overgrown that it takes Suzie a moment to notice the two old women sitting in the murky water. For some reason they have taken their clothes off. The skin on their forearms is loose and their empty breasts hang to their waists. Their features are strange. One of them is bold and her head reminds Suzie of a straw mushroom with its shape and color, and with the gray peelings on the sides. The other one has the pasty skin of someone dredged out of the deep. The first woman is seated deeper in the water, and the second one is behind her standing or sitting on higher ground so they seem stacked behind each other like cards from some obscure tarot deck.
Suzie moves aside the branches and looks at the women. She hopes they will go away. They look back, unblinking and expressionless.
“What is happening to me?” Suzie cries so they can hear her in the distance. “Who is depriving me of shoes to wear, of food to eat? Tell me.”
The women gain an air of satisfaction about them as if they got something long waited for. “She wants to know the truth. She wants to know the truth,” they chant, their voices old and cracking and full of mockery. The one behind pulls something from the water and starts smacking it against the tree on their left in time with the chanting. Suzie can see what has been brought out of the water with clarity and in the finest of details. It is a skinless fish. The blood vessels on its body are bright red against the gray of its flesh. The mouth with sharp, pointed teeth is opening and closing. The big, frenzied eye makes rounds in its socket. The bark of the tree is deeply cut and ragged, and the fish makes a loud slapping sound when it is brought against it.
Suzie gags and starts to cry. Not letting go of her pretty, ruined shoes, she slides down the trunk of the apple tree. Just in time she notices Mrs. Pelham, the lady that takes care of the grounds, who is sweeping the pavement and the stairs on the side of the building.
“Good morning, Suzie,” Mrs. Pelham calls out. “Did you sleep in the tree house? Nice dress you have. Put your shoes on, you’ll catch a cold like that.”
“Yes, Mrs. Pelham. I will. Good morning to you, too.”
Finally, Suzie is around the corner. Loud sobs shake her whole body. She needs to talk to her sister. She will do it right now. She runs past the first and the second entryways, then past the third one where she lives with her father, and where the phone will ring any moment now. The townhouses with their columned porches and flowerpots with geraniums and pansies waver in front of her eyes as if the whole street has gone underwater and she is watching it from a submarine window.
Suzie cannot stop crying. The air is becoming salty and sparse. Soon there won’t be enough to breathe.