Without You by Milena Nigam

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looking up at attic window of old house

In 1982, my parents divorce, and my mom, sister, and I move to a small house in West Concord, at the time a working class town twenty miles west of Boston. I am eight years old.

The new house was built around the turn of the century, and the most recent owner used it to store rotting furniture and other flotsam, so we get the house cheap. My sister and I are allowed to roller-skate over the plywood floor circling the new kitchen island in our new house while my mom oversees the first of what will be a forty-year tenure of major house and apartment renovations. I watch how the workmen watch my mom, and how she has to tell them to do the same things more than once.

A row of lilac bushes has just finished blooming, and my mom plants an ornamental weeping cherry tree in front. The tree, which emotes like a silent movie actress, sets us apart from our neighbors. On Mother’s Day morning we nestle gladiola bulbs in the ground.

“These are to celebrate our new start,” my mother announces with a smile-frown while she chucks rocks from the soil. My sister and I try to be as ruthless with the rocks, pretending not to notice the ones that could become collectibles. In the dripping humid months to follow, the bulbs pierce the ground like sabers and grow straight to the sun until, suddenly shy, ruffles of color unfurl from their sharp tips. By mid-summer, their faces are showy and loud.

* * *

A girl my age visits our front porch with her parents, two academics, and we become best friends right away. Her name is Muffy. Climbing the maple tree next to our driveway, she tells me with dizzying authority about two magazines, Playboy and Playgirl. Supposedly, they have pictures of people’s private parts.

“My brother found them under our parents’ bed.”

I don’t believe her, so she tells me something else.

“There’s a boy who lives around the corner. He once threw a kitten out his attic window.”

We can see the window from the front of my house.

All summer, we practice our Solid Gold dance routines on roller skates with my little sister, scraping over the smooth cement front porch and leading with our flat hips and knobby elbows. We all wear legwarmers knit in rainbow yarn. They’re store bought, even Muffy’s. My sister’s blond curls stick out of pigtails like two ears of baby corn.

The boy’s name is Andrew. He lives without a father, like me, but his mom also seems to be mostly absent. The only time I see her, she is breaking glass bottles in the road. I ride my bike by his house with a thumping heart, scared of the splintery home surrounded by dead bushes, weightless like prairie weed and scratched into a yellowed lawn.

Beginning that summer before I start third grade, my mom is out of the house during the days, too, working as a secretary in Cambridge. When we lived together as a family with my father, we weren’t allowed to watch much television. Now I watch as much as I want. My favorite show is Little House on the Prairie.

When the days are hot, Muffy and I teach ourselves to mix melted vanilla ice cream with smashed up bananas, which we sell as banana ice cream for $2.00 to a girl down the street. Her mother calls us on the telephone and speaks in a sharp British accent.

“This isn’t right. You need to come straight over and return my daughter’s allowance money.”

Getting in trouble is the worst thing that can happen to me. My stomach hurts the whole ride home.

* * *

When I start school in the fall, I learn that Andrew was expelled the year before, so I don’t see him in the cafeteria buying chocolate milk or on the playground at recess playing monkey-in-the-middle. Where I see him is looking at me from his attic window. In the warm months, he leans way out; there is no screen to keep the bugs out or hold him in. He leans out and is taller than our neighbor’s pine trees. In the colder weather, it is just his shadow smudged behind the glass that I can feel; his eyes are white and penetrating, though I can’t actually see them.

The kitten rumor haunts me.

I picture Andrew clicking his lips softly like a squeaky fish, making insincere sounds and rubbing his fingers like sheets of paper to attract the kitten to him. I can see his slightly chubby boyish arms tensing as he flings the animal at the window, shards of glass jettisoning outward and the kitten exploding into pieces through it. The vision is bloodless, dry fur and hard matter propelling in an ever-widening cone like a sideways cartoon atomic bomb.

* * *

During these stretched-out days of childhood, I spend a lot of time on the seat of my bike. I ride it to friends’ houses or the school playground, but where I head to most is the 5&10, spending my pennies on Cow Tales, Gobstoppers, and candy cigarettes. We puff powdered sugar out the ends and then chew the stale bubble gum.

Some days, my friends and I ride to the railroad tracks and walk up and down the gravel beds between the railway crossing lights collecting soda cans for the deposit return money. If we can stand to save our earnings, eventually we have enough money to buy yo-yos. My other best friend Sarah buys one that glows in the dark.

Andrew also has a bike. He uses it to chase me through the neighborhood. I never know when his laugh will pop up behind me; it is a self-satisfied, nearly teenage laugh.

I don’t like to ride fast. Andrew is bigger than me, and fearless. Probably, he has nothing to lose. Sometimes he rides just behind me, bringing his front wheel a steadied hair’s width away from my back wheel. Other times he rides next to me, using a stick to prod the spokes as they spin around, catching them and jerking me off-balance.

This boy has killed a kitten.

Without someone at home to protect me, I race to neighbors’ houses, making maniacal small talk and willing the grownups with my eyes to see the danger I am in. Andrew doesn’t get tired waiting for me: his legs straddling his bike, a stick in his hand tracing lines in the dirt. The white undershirt he wears every day is brown with dust patterned like sprouting mold. When I get up the courage to race back to my front porch, Andrew laughs like a cough and chases past my house around the block. He always looks over his shoulder to let me know he’s still thinking of me.

* * *

During this time, my mother gets promoted to editor and dates several men. One man is from South Africa. Another, Denmark. The South African likes to have me do things for my mom, like get her tea in the evenings while he lounges on the couch, whispering and playing with her hands. One morning I wake up to find my dad pleading with her in the kitchen; she is crying and disappears into the laundry room. He drives away while my sister and I think maybe there’s a chance.

Then, when I am twelve, I hear my mom talking with her sister.

“He’s the most wonderful man, kindhearted, great with the girls.”

She is stretched out on the floor of her bedroom, twirling the phone cord around her finger. I’m confused for a while because I don’t know whom she is talking about.

A few weeks later, I learn that she has fallen in love with a friend from work. When she tells me with a smile that feels like an apology that they are engaged to be married, she is sitting at the desk in our study, and she twists her body towards me but doesn’t turn the chair around to fully face me. She keeps her hands on the papers at the desk. I tell her congratulations and embrace the side of her because it seems like something I should do.

What she says next is tossed at my feet like a grenade: lightly delivered but organ splintering.

“The only person we choose in life is our partner, Milena. We don’t get to choose our parents or our siblings. We don’t even choose our children.”

I lie in bed that night, the un-chosen.

* * *

By middle school, the bike chases are over, although they first climax with a bigger Andrew riding no-handed, wielding boards with nails biting out the ends. My mom is oblivious to the kitten-killing bike terror living among us, and as I move into the viney years of early adolescence and start to put together some irritating details about sex—and in particular, sex between my mom and her new husband—I feel very alone.

One day, Andrew blasts U2’s With or Without You from his attic window. I am in eighth grade and obsessed with the band. It’s probably a coincidence that he plays that song; our lives have no intersection except for the proximity of our houses. Besides, it’s a popular hit at the time.

And yet, the music is aggressive in a way I’ve never noticed before.

A few days later, as I’m stepping out our front door, he calls to me and it sounds like an echo, or like there is a tunnel between our two houses. The sound of my name stretches out long, connecting us.

“Milena! Milena!”

We’ve never talked, not a single time. Until that moment, I assumed he didn’t know my name, didn’t know anything about me except for where I live and that I’m easy prey on a bike. I feel caught and exposed on the front porch, unsafe in a new way. He’s leaning far out his window, but I don’t look up. I pretend I can’t hear him, which is almost true as blood floods my ear cavities.

* * *

When we move to a new house in one of the fancier neighborhoods in order for my mother and stepfather to claim their new start and begin house renovation project number two, I feel like I’ve escaped something dark. Heady pollen floats into the front door screen, and all I see from the new house are trees and gentle landscaping. It is on this green grass that my girlfriends come over to sun in their bikinis, the butterflies flirting with clumps of wildflowers and the smell of the Concord grape vineyards breezing by in early September. My stepfather and mom deal with the construction workers together, and my mom doesn’t have to tighten her lips to get things done right.

Muffy and I have grown apart.


* * *

And then, as high school seniors, my friends and I drive one town over to go to a party in a 1970s ranch covered in bleached gray shingles. Teetering pine scrubs mushroom around the perimeter. We push open the unfamiliar storm door where rusted metal curlicues keep a ripped screen tight against the winter glass. There are boys we know from school already smelling like beer. Some of the prettier girls have folded their parkas on the corner of the couch and are talking with athletes from a rival football team.

I walk into the kitchen knocking snow off my boots, and there is Andrew wiping his nose with one hand, a clear plastic cup overflowing with urine-colored booze in another. Andrew, still in a white undershirt and grown, looking now like a real meathead with hair shaved down to his skull. Rumor quickly reaches us, those who knew of him in elementary school: he’s getting a technical degree, maybe has straightened out a bit.

I’m too old to look for my mom anymore to hope she’s paying attention. What would she have done if I had carried that broken kitten to her desk? My stepfather was her savior, lifting her over the threshold to an almost clean start. But I’ll always feel like un-chosen baggage.

Here, in this stranger’s house, surrounded by the buzz of drunk teenagers, I stand almost face-to-face with the person who terrorized my childhood, who threatened me with nails and bike chases and an anger that could have shattered me like the fist fights that got him expelled from elementary school, like the innocent kitten thrown to its death, like the lives of so many girls overpowered by hurting boys.

Yet all I feel when I recognize him in the kitchen is the uninvited pull of desire. Wanting him to touch me, to push me against the wall. To whisper a name in my ear.


Milena NigamMilena Nigam is a writer from Pittsburgh, Pa. She has published in Compose Journal and Halfway Down the Stairs, and her story, Seville, was a finalist in Cutthroat Journal’s Rick DeMarinis 2014 short story contest. Prior to focusing on writing, Milena was the director of a nonprofit evaluation team. These days, she is a nonfiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs and is working on a collection of short stories.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Haven’t The Slightest

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