But Not For Me
by Katrina Gray
Annie sits in her booster seat in the back of Miss Whalen's car, her hands sticky with grape jelly. There's a song on the radio she remembers. Her dress is ironed and new, yellow with lace, uncomfortable. Miss Whalen says it's a special day. Annie wants to take off her shoes, but she keeps them on.
These trees are different-tall and broad. Annie doesn't know where she's going. They've been in the car a long time, and Annie has to pee. She doesn't know Miss Whalen well enough to say "pee" to her face, so she holds it.
Annie is quiet. Miss Whalen talks about the sky, her hair, the heat. Annie sometimes nods or shakes her head, but Miss Whalen only sees when she glances in the rearview mirror, which she does a lot.
"You like dogs, Annie?" Miss Whalen asks.
Annie nods, though she can't remember meeting a dog.
"Good," Miss Whalen says. "The Millers have a dog. They like dogs and children, but they don't have any children, not yet."
Miss Whalen drives Annie places where she stays, but not for keeps. So when the new people shake a finger, when they yell, she remembers Miss Whalen saying, "It's not for keeps."
People wait for them in houses, apartments, parks. They grab Annie's hand and talk with Miss Whalen, who pinches her cheeks and tells her to be good. Annie tries hard to be good. She knows how to use a toilet now. She stays quiet.
Miss Whalen turns onto a street where flowering bushes line the sidewalks. The houses look the same but are different colors, and the grass is green and short. A man walking a dog waves. Boys riding bikes stop and watch the car go by. One of them locks eyes with Annie and smiles.
The car slows down, and Miss Whalen pulls into a driveway. A lady with blond hair like Annie's stands on the porch with her hand to her mouth, overcome. A man in a tie comforts her, squeezes her close, and smiles.
Miss Whalen gets out and leaves her door open. "Hi, Bob. Hey, Teri." She motions toward the back seat. "Here she is."
She unbuckles Annie and crouches as she walks her to the porch. The woman kneels to meet Annie's eyes. "Hi," she says, hushed, like she's talking to a baby. She strokes Annie's hair.
Annie feels happy. She looks up and squints when the sun catches her eyes. She sees a cloud shaped like a fish and wants to show someone. The woman picks up Annie and laughs. She hugs Annie tight. Miss Whalen stands back, proud.
Annie can't hold it any longer. She lets go. Her tights become warm and wet, soaking the woman's blouse. The woman's face goes limp, and Annie knows she has done something else wrong.
by Katrina Gray
Lana moved books around on the shelf, swallowing the hard spot in her throat. She noticed dust, and hated herself for not taking better care of the place. What else, really, did she have to do? Peter was right: she was a burden.
Inside Lana’s head was a pendulum that swung sometimes, but was mostly still. She never knew what would get it going or when. She could feel it now: it dangled between her swollen eyes, hot, and gained momentum the more Peter said. There was no reining it in. His words clung to it and swayed: We both suffer for your moods, don’t we? Lana wished there hadn’t been a question at the end, a place that needed her to speak up and say something she might get wrong.
Peter was behind her, watching her body shrug every few seconds, the quaking of her back when tears came. His arms were crossed. She could not possibly be doing this again. He had worked hard all day, lifting sick bodies, helping elderly limbs get moving again, fingers and arms and necks, and he had to come home to this.
“Well?” said Peter. “You like honesty. I was honest. Don’t act like it’s not true.” He wanted to touch her; he really did. He had thought of her neck on his drive home. It was her best feature, a slender neck with blond hairs at its nape. He was hoping her hair would be up when he got home, but it was down, straight, unwashed.
“There’s a way—“ said Lana. She gathered herself. “There’s a way to tell me.”
Peter said what he meant. He was forceful. He didn’t know how to be any other way. Lana said it was because he was from Chicago. She joked, but she meant it.
Lana was from
“You want me to sugarcoat it?” Peter knew the answer, knew even that she required it. It wasn’t her fault she was this way. She had gone through enough, and he knew better. It wasn’t her fault she was Lana. But, God, he was sick of it.
Lana couldn’t answer for a few seconds. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just want you to think how I might feel.” She had run out of ways to arrange the books. She would have to go to another shelf, or fold the clean towels on the bed, or unload the dishwasher—something to busy herself. But she could not turn around and see him and the look on his face. He was disgusted with her, she knew, but she did not understand how to be better. She did not know how to stop feeling.
“Goddammit!” Peter said. “All we do anymore is talk about how you feel!” He opened the front door and slammed it behind him.
Lana froze. Nothing could fix this. Nothing, except what did not happen: Peter melting, Peter relenting, Peter moving toward her and enfolding her, crushing everything he said or didn’t say before. Peter saying, You are Lana, and I love you. You are Lana, and I like you here.
The thing that had pushed her over the edge was his impartiality. That’s it: he was impartial to her. His disinterest was what brought all this on. He knew that she had searched for a way to express herself. He knew this. And after receiving her new camera in the mail this morning, Lana had taught herself how to make the lens work. She felt creative and smart. She took an elegant photograph of peach fuzz, way up close, and she had to change several settings—the light, the focus, the aperture—to get it just right. It looked straight out of a magazine. “Look, Pete!” she said after she kissed him hello. “Check out this picture.”
Peter walked into Lana’s office, where she pointed at her laptop screen. He shrugged. “It’s a peach,” he said.
“But you can actually see the fuzz.”
He glanced at the photo again. It was still a peach, a goddamn peach. There was nothing particularly striking about it. He shook his head. “I guess I just can’t get excited about a picture of a peach.” What he really wanted to say—what he really thought—was, This is what you did all day?
It was the layering of his quips that got her—the unexpectedness of them, his insensitivity. That she was happy, and then she wasn’t. She had told him: I’m not saying I’m right; it’s just how I feel. She did not keep it inside. Her therapist said that this was the healthy thing to do, talking these things out. But she wanted to stay quiet. She wished his words would fly around her or pierce her and be gone. Or, she thought, it would just be easier if he didn’t say them.
It would be easier for Peter too, because he just wanted to wind down and eat some dinner and watch television. He wanted to walk in, take off his scrubs, and not have to look at pictures of peaches.
Lana couldn’t help it: her feelings were hurt, but she managed. She closed her laptop and got out a book while Peter ate dinner, not asking why she wasn’t hungry. Lana did not want to sulk, but it came over her. Her heart hurt, and her stomach wrenched, and she thought, When you love someone, you get excited about what excites them. He doesn’t love me. Not anymore. But she would have even gotten over that in a little while, though the thought swung and swung. Then Peter noticed her there, reading a romance novel, and he said his next thing, the one that really did it.
“I don’t understand why you read that shit.”
Lana stopped reading but kept her eyes buried.
“It’s not smart,” said Peter.
There was nothing, really, that Lana could say to that. She closed the book and walked to the bookshelf and tried to fit it in the wrong place. When that didn’t work, she moved the books around—her romances around Peter’s biology textbooks—but nothing worked. And that’s when the tears came, and the quaking, and everything after that.
Hours before, Lana could not reason throwing herself away. Those were stupid thoughts. She managed to shoo them away. There was a spark in her, something new and brilliant, and she couldn’t understand how she could have been so down on herself.
The peach had been heavy in her hand, but so soft. She ran her fingers over it a long time before she set it on the windowsill to photograph it. As she set the camera, she remembered her pill. The bottle was too close to the peach and was blurring an edge.
She smelled the peach and thought of how she would cut it open soon, maybe tomorrow. Peter had pulled over to the roadside stand and bought her a bag of them yesterday, the first of the season, and this was the best one. He had walked through the door with them, smiling. A treat for the sweet, he had said, and she had thought, right then, that any awful thing she had ever felt about him was all her.
She stuffed the peach in a brown paper bag to ripen faster. In her head, Peter said, You are too impatient. She giggled at this: the voice wasn't right, not at all. Lana had patience. She knew how to wait, and she knew how it felt to wear away little by little, slowly, becoming dark and soft, until even caresses felt like bruises.
Katrina Gray is a writer and blogger living in Nashville. To read more of her work, go to: katrinagray.com