Dave Newman

Juleen

 
Juleen wants to punch Max in the face. 

Max is twen­ty-two years old, a moun­tain bike dude.

Juleen is thir­ty-three, five-months out of rehab.

This morn­ing, on the cof­fee table in the liv­ing room, Max left a bag of weed, two rolled joints, and six emp­ty beer cans. This evening the daugh­ter Juleen des­per­ate­ly wants back in her life is sup­posed to arrive at 6:00, dropped off by her father.

The father is straight and steady and holds a good job in account­ing.

He nev­er asks for child sup­port.

He nev­er men­tions that Juleen lives in a col­lege apart­ment with a room­mate named Max who leaves drugs on the table and eats Powerbars, who drinks ener­gy drinks and wears sporty clothes, who majors in film stud­ies and car­ries his phone around like a third hand.

Juleen wears the same four out­fits, some­times wash­ing them in the bath­tub. She drinks water. She eats what­ev­er, when­ev­er. She majors in psy­chol­o­gy because she does not know what else to major in. She does not smoke weed. When she did drugs, she did drugs. She nev­er left her drugs on the table like loose change.

Max wants to make a movie on his phone, a doc­u­men­tary about moun­tain bike dudes, and pre­mière it at a cof­fee­house.

Juleen owns a wel­fare phone filled with pic­tures of her daugh­ter.

It’s 3:00.

Juleen cut class to come home and redd-up, to wipe the sticky spots, to vac­u­um. The bath­tub needs scrubbed and Juleen bought cleanser. She bought bub­ble bath because kids need baths, kids like bub­bles. She bought a lit­tle lizard thing at the dol­lar store because lizard things are prob­a­bly fun to play with in the bath­tub and moms want their daugh­ters to look at them and smile and squeeze plas­tic lizards filled with sudsy water and laugh.

The last time Juleen saw her daugh­ter, they played at a park and some hip­pie girl let them throw her dog a Frisbee and Juleen wept in bed that night because her daugh­ter loves dogs and Frisbees, because Juleen could not buy her daugh­ter a dog, because she could not have a dog in her apart­ment, because she could maybe afford a Frisbee but maybe not.

After all these months of being sober Juleen is still Juleen and, of course, she had done these things to her­self and, of course, these things made and make her pathet­ic as a mom, obvi­ous­ly, even as she only cares about the oppo­site now, please.

***

It’s 3:05.

Juleen stands on the cof­fee table, palms flat against the ceil­ing, against the apart­ment above her, stretch­ing her mus­cles from neck to toes. She says a prayer to whomev­er, to the ceil­ing. She doesn’t believe in god despite the god stuff in rehab but she hopes, always hopes, because hope is a god too, more gen­er­ous than most.

She jumps down.

She walks the liv­ing room, search­ing for Max’s bike hel­met, his back­pack, his water bot­tle, any­thing to stomp into plas­tic dust and fab­ric, but he’s tak­en it all to wher­ev­er, class or his job at the sub shop or to some trail he’s ped­al­ing on, sweat­ing his boy sweat and not wor­ry­ing.

Max always says, “Race the world. Don’t let the world race you.”

Juleen does not know what that means except Max does not have a child and his brain is a cloud of weed smoke and quotes from shit­ty Eastern phi­los­o­phy books he pre­tends to read.

She steps back on the cof­fee table and places her palms flat on the ceil­ing.

Breathe moth­er­fuck­er, she says, her mantra.

People—counselors, friends, even Max—think she wants to drink, to drug. They see the veins in her fore­head and her neck mus­cles flexed and they think she will dive into a bot­tle or pop dope and fall into a couch, drool­ing. But she wants focus, not loss. She wants time and mon­ey so she can get hap­py the way peo­ple with time and mon­ey get hap­py, by play­ing with their daugh­ters and tak­ing their daugh­ters to places that cost mon­ey, bounce hous­es and piz­za par­lors, the store at the mall where girls make their own ted­dy bears and kiss the plas­tic heart and place it in the bear’s fur­ry chest before they fill the body with stuff­ing that smells like vanil­la cake. Parenting makes being a drug addict look inex­pen­sive.

Being here, present, is easy.

Getting there is the crush.

Yesterday, Juleen stood in a gro­cery store for ten min­utes, try­ing to decide whether to buy Fruit Circles or Fruit Loops, whether to save two dol­lars and lose the vit­a­mins they pump into the name brand or to spend the two dol­lars and not buy the lizard bath toy.

Juleen steps on the plas­tic bag of weed and wants to punch Max in the face.

***

Forgive Max, he’s a fuck­ing kid.

Only one oth­er per­son respond­ed when Juleen was apart­ment hunt­ing because fuck­ing kids do not want to live with old ladies who are recov­er­ing from drugs and have a daugh­ter and some­times can’t make the rent.

Or, worse, they want to live with old ex-junkies because they are young and male and horny and one said, “You into orgies?” when Juleen showed up with her check­book and said she was just out of rehab, try­ing to be hon­est, try­ing to imag­ine a dude in a Cleveland Cavaliers bas­ket­ball jer­sey as a young adult.

No, I am not into orgies,” Juleen said, “but thanks.”

Me nei­ther,” the boy said, “but I could be,” and winked.

Forgive all of them because they are young and ter­ri­ble and Juleen was worse than all of them and she still won­ders if she is bet­ter than any­one now.

Sometimes Max buys gro­ceries and cooks Juleen din­ner. He brings home subs for her and leaves them in the refrig­er­a­tor with friend­ly notes. He bought her an alarm clock because her crap­py phone does not have an alarm, because she did not know phones had alarms until Max showed her his Samsung one morn­ing.

Do not punch Max in the face.

Do not.

***

Juleen first banged her daughter’s father at a par­ty one night when he was still in col­lege and she was bar­tend­ing at an after­hours club and sleep­ing all day. It was a fun thing, bang­ing her daughter’s father, like get­ting drunk or eat­ing a whole bag of pota­to chips or bang­ing a cute guy who’d only slept with one oth­er girl in his life. Her daughter’s father styled his hair with gel and wore shirts with col­lars. He asked ques­tions, the right ones, he was inter­est­ed, he cared. He was a sweet­ie, still is a sweet­ie. He loves his par­ents and his par­ents love him and they paid for his col­lege and he thanked them pro­fuse­ly.

Now they help with the daugh­ter and every­thing else, all of it.

They are good peo­ple.

Juleen can rec­og­nize good peo­ple.

She under­stands that she can be good peo­ple, but that she is not, but that she will be.

On the night they banged but before the bang­ing, her daughter’s father said, “What about your par­ents?” in his inquis­i­tive way and Juleen said, “You’re kid­ding?” and kissed him and took him by the hand to the back bed­room where they fucked on a pile of coats and he shiv­ered and came in two min­utes and apol­o­gized and offered to run out and buy them snacks.

When Juleen found out she was preg­nant, she tracked him down and stopped by his apart­ment, embar­rassed yet broke, plan­ning to ask for mon­ey to pay for the abor­tion, half the abor­tion if he got weird, if he asked ques­tions.

She said, “Sorry to track you down.”

He said, “I’m glad you did,” and invit­ed her in.

She said, “I’m preg­nant.”

He thought about that, not angri­ly, and said, “You’re sure it’s mine?”

Juleen said, “You’re my one and only.”

He sat down on his crum­my col­lege couch, which was nicer than the couch Juleen owns now, then slid to the floor and took a knee and asked her to mar­ry him.

Juleen said, “Oh sweet­ie, get up,” and helped him to his feet.

***

Juleen couldn’t have got­ten mar­ried because she still want­ed to get fucked up. Getting fucked up was a lot of fun and it kept her from think­ing about things like mon­ey and jobs and futures and dead par­ents.

But a baby could have helped with that too.

Why had she nev­er con­sid­ered a baby?

Juleen said, “You real­ly want this kid?”

He said, “Why wouldn’t I?”

Juleen was glad she hadn’t men­tioned the abor­tion.

It took time for her daughter’s father to under­stand they weren’t get­ting mar­ried.

It took a longer time for Juleen to quit get­ting fucked up, like most of her preg­nan­cy, like her baby could have been born with three heads and two toes, some­thing she nev­er plans to admit to any­one, ever.

***

Her daugh­ter likes to be called Edie, not Edith. She’s nine now. Juleen named her after a grand­moth­er she’d imag­ined for her­self when she was a child, when she was lone­ly, when she’d eat­en all the peanut but­ter and the only can in the cab­i­net was sauer­kraut and they bare­ly had spoons, let alone a can open­er.

In rehab, where they talked all the time, where she lis­tened to peo­ple she couldn’t stand, where they asked her to cre­ate a metaphor for her child­hood, she said, “It’s was big tire, a truck tire, and it was rolling down­hill. I was the kid inside the tire. I don’t know where the truck was.” It was stu­pid, metaphors are, but her child­hood was like that, spi­ral­ing, from birth until four­teen or fif­teen, fun and scary and end­less, one par­ent there, the oth­er gone, then vice ver­sa, then who­ev­er her par­ents slept with, then fos­ter care, then her mom, final­ly sober, who was love­ly under­neath the drugs. She man­aged to work two jobs and get Juleen through high school before breast can­cer and fight­ing that and los­ing, no insur­ance, no mon­ey, being asked to leave the hos­pi­tal then com­ing back the next day through the emer­gency-room doors where they had to treat her for anoth­er night, for at least a cou­ple hours.

Juleen miss­es her moth­er every day, even the coke­head in the bath­room who chugged Nyquil to come down, but espe­cial­ly the lov­ing moth­er, prac­ti­cal, sane, the moth­er who stacked small piles of cash on top of bills and a white enve­lope for gro­ceries until every­thing was paid and the rest was their mon­ey to use for fun. Juleen wants to be fun. She learned fun from her moth­er. She learned sac­ri­fice. Her moth­er white-knuck­led sobri­ety and worked odd hours at ter­ri­ble jobs—housecleaning, office clean­ing, babysit­ting oth­er people’s kids—and still took Juleen for piz­za then didn’t eat any piz­za so Juleen could take slices to school for lunch, pep­per­oni and cheese when they couldn’t afford pep­per­oni, when they couldn’t afford air.

***

At 3:10 Juleen decides she will punch Max if he shows up but she will imme­di­ate­ly apol­o­gize and pre­tend like she hadn’t meant to do it.

***

When Juleen was fif­teen, her moth­er said, “I could apol­o­gize every day for what I missed, and I’d be hap­py to say I’m sor­ry from morn­ing until night if that’s what you want, but for now let’s push on, okay?” They stood in the kitchen, the refrig­er­a­tor almost emp­ty, the room dim and gray because they couldn’t afford light­bulbs for every sock­et. Her moth­er said, “Just me and you, push­ing on? I see you’re won­der­ful and I hope a lit­tle bit rubs off on me.”

Her mom said things like this, greet­ing card stuff, but she meant it, des­per­ate­ly.

For weeks Juleen had spo­ken less or not at all while think­ing deeply on hat­ing her mom because hate might have felt good, might have been right, because this reunion had hap­pened so fast, her new mom not drink­ing or drug­ging or bang­ing strangers with tat­toos. Hate might have reversed time or paid cash or erased mem­o­ries. Her friends hat­ed their par­ents and their par­ents had mon­ey and took their chil­dren to eat in restau­rants and bought them nice clothes. Juleen nev­er cared about those things but maybe she should start. Or not. Being fif­teen was awful. The sun shin­ing pissed Juleen off but so did the moon and so did the flu­o­res­cent lights at school. Living every­where, down to the reli­gious fos­ter par­ents who wouldn’t let her shave her legs and their teenage son who walked around with his dick out, lurked inside Juleen’s head like creeps on the street and she couldn’t stop lis­ten­ing, no mat­ter how hap­py she felt now, no mat­ter how much she loved her mom, her mom off drugs and yam­mer­ing like a self-help book.

Maybe Juleen always was a punch­er.

She remem­bers want­i­ng to hit her mom, to knock her out with a fist, like a fist might revise a fam­i­ly, but instead Juleen invit­ed her mom to a high school bas­ket­ball game and they sat togeth­er, the two of them and not Juleen’s friends. They ate pop­corn. They drank flat soda in waxy Pepsi cups.  Juleen said, “I love you, Mom,” over the thump of boys in high-top sneak­ers and her mom said, “You’re pret­ti­er than all those cheer­lead­ers,” and start­ed to cry.

***

How sad to think Juleen’s daugh­ter will nev­er know her grand­moth­er.

How sad Juleen’s moth­er dis­ap­peared from Juleen’s life for nine of her first fif­teen years.

How sad to look at the moon and not believe in grav­i­ty, what some junky told Juleen one night before puk­ing in her purse.

The way Juleen for­gave and still loves her moth­er, she hopes so much for that.

***

Juleen buries the beer cans in the kitchen trash bas­ket under an emp­ty cere­al box and stands over the toi­let, ready to drop the bag of weed, but she can’t let go out of respect for peo­ple who strug­gle with respect, out of respect for oth­er people’s things, their inter­ests, respect for Max, respect for drug­gies, respect for the sober, respect for any­one, for every­one, for her­self when she’d spent so many years dis­re­spect­ing every­thing, on pur­pose too.

She stuffs the drugs in Max’s room, inside a wood­en box he claims to have bought from a Navajo on a trip out west.

It’s 3:30.

***

It’s 4:00.

Juleen goes down for a nap. She’s exhaust­ed but too tired to sleep. She still wants to punch Max, which trou­bles her.

She clos­es her eyes, think­ing of Max’s face and her fist.

She sleeps any­way.

***

It’s 5:55.

Max stands inside the Ye Olde Teddy Bear Shoppe in Irwin, look­ing at a wall of ted­dy bears. He’s late. They called him in to work this morn­ing after he’d stayed up all night binge-watch­ing the History Channel’s series on ancient Rome and smok­ing dope and sip­ping brews.

He’d planned to spend the whole day clean­ing, help­ing Juleen get ready for her kid, because Juleen had class­es, but they’d asked him to stay late at work, to slice the meat, then to cut pota­toes into fries, then to clean one of the fry­ers, because the oth­er guys at Tubby’s stand around and smoke dope and get the gig­gles but Max smokes dope and moves, he cleans and works and rides his bike and he stud­ies, he stud­ies hard.

Without the weed he’d be a ner­vous wreck.

The beer he could have prob­a­bly done with­out.

An old­er lady, in a blue silky dress cov­ered in ros­es, says, “Can I help you?”

Max says, “Yes.” He says, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” and touch­es a ted­dy bear.

The old­er lady smiles and says, “Tell me her age, that’s a good place to start.”

Max says, “One is like eight or nine, and the oth­er one is her mom. She’s like thir­ty-five or some­thing but she’s been a total mess, only now she’s real­ly cool.”

Let me show you the match­ing bears,” the woman says, and takes Max gen­tly by the elbow and turns him to anoth­er dis­play, bears small and large, side-by-side, dressed in gowns, dressed in suits with bowties.

***

Juleen’s daughter’s father shows up in his Ford that looks like the lux­u­ry cars Juleen remem­bers peo­ple dri­ving years ago, Lincolns and Cadillacs and Town Cars and all those big honkers she’d nev­er been inside. Edie sits in the front seat, a first. It makes Juleen anx­ious. Juleen’s car is a Hyundai, tiny, almost a pre­tend car, destroy­able.

Her daughter’s father steps out, shirt and tie, slacks, but disheveled, tired.

He says, “All ready?” smil­ing his dumb boy smile even though he’s thir­ty now, a man.

All ready,” Juleen says. “When did she start rid­ing in the front seat?”

Blame the grand­par­ents. My dad let her up there and there’s no going back.”

She’s so big,” Juleen says and tries not to cry.

Edie reach­es from the front seat to the back­seat, gath­er­ing stuff, elec­tron­ics and toys, her long blonde hair flop­ping over her head.

Juleen cov­ers her eyes with her thumbs and rubs up.

Her daughter’s father says, “Bag,” and hands over Edie’s bag then takes Juleen’s hands and pulls her into a hug and holds her, the bag between them. He says, “Hey.”

Why are you so kind?” Juleen says.

Because you’re great,” he says. “Edie has been beg­ging to sleep over here.”

Edie says, “Mom!” and sprints at Juleen, all the toys still in the car, Edie’s arms wide open like she’s mea­sur­ing the apart­ment, her par­ents, the love. Juleen drops the bag and catch­es her daugh­ter and lifts her and spins her, even though Edie is too big to spin, too big to keep off the ground, to keep in motion.

Juleen grabs again, low­er, hard­er, the small of Edie’s back, squeez­ing.

Juleen holds on.

~

Dave Newman is the author of five books, includ­ing The Poem Factory (White Gorilla Press, 2015), the nov­els Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children (Writers Tribe Books, 2012) and Two Small Birds (Writers Tribe Books, 2014), and the col­lec­tion The Slaughterhouse Poems (White Gorilla Press, 2013), named one of the best books of the year by L Magazine. He lives in Trafford, PA, the last town in the Electric Valley, with his wife, the writer Lori Jakiela, and their two chil­dren.