When they finish and roll off of her, skin sticky with hollow accomplishment and face so achingly open, she has to close her eyes.
She could hurt them; she knows. She hates when they come undone in front of her, when they lay back with their hearts exposed. And she hates that they're a 'they': one collective group of boys whose hands once wanted to know her instead of names and faces and wet eyes she does her best to forget.
Most of all, she hates when they leave, even if she's the first to grab her shoes and slip out the door while the sun shrugs its way through the stars. They leave the moment she sees her own reflection in the dark pools of their eyes. They leave when her body's no longer warm enough; when it becomes the frozen outline of a venomous predator; when they forget she's just a girl.
She is, in the breath of breaking dawn, just a girl. She tightens her grip on the straps of her shiny black stilettos and always finds her eyes glued to the asphalt, searching.
Her heart screams answers to questions she won't let herself ask.
It's not them.
It will never be them.
In the shower, she turns the knob as far left as it will go without the scalding temperature permanently scarring her skin and sits at the bottom, knees drawn to her chest, until the water runs cold. Each full tremor of her body soothes her like the sob she can never get out. The skin of her fingertips puckers and folds like she feels her stomach doing, until all she can manage to swallow is the apple juice her mother keeps for the baby.
At one time, she would nurse a stolen bottle of vodka, cigarette held carelessly between two fingers, imagining her hair in shining ringlets and face cut with shadows as if she were stuck in an old black and white movie.
Now, she wraps her arms around the stuffed cat she's had forever and licks salty tears off her lips as they somersault down her cheeks. It isn't glamorous. What started out as a show has now become her secret, how she folds herself into a stranger's body and tries so hard to disappear.
Maybe it works; they only look at her long enough to imagine whoever they want her to be then she fades into the sweaty sheets.
She used to wish someone would look at her like she was worth something. But as soon as they did, she threw herself under a promiscuous label and squeezed her eyes shut until she was anything but worthless.
It could have been her armor. She held it as a weapon. In the morning, she claimed ownership of all harm.
They leave her empty. No, it leaves her empty. In the beginning, she'd tried to fill the space inside her with as much food as she could find, as if a swollen stomach might make up for an echoing heartbeat. But the tight skin under her shirt only reminded her of another belly enlarged by a second, tinier heartbeat, and her quest for food soon turned into a scramble for water.
She never feels clean, no matter how long she soaks herself in the constant spray of the double shower in her semi-ensuite. Three bottles of water only result in tiles cutting into her knees as she clutches a porcelain bowl, wondering exactly how long it's been since she stopped willing herself into the same position.
One night she sneaks into the community pool and strips naked in the dim glow of flickering floodlights. Her eyes burn with the mixture of chlorine and tears and she dives to the bottom, wishing she had it in her to never resurface. The thought of a child finding her lifeless body in the morning scares her out of the pool and back into a dress that clings too tight, the way she wishes she could cling to her mother, if her mother ever asked her why she's never home.
Sometimes she hates the baby for needing so much attention and she whispers this into the dizzying almond-scented tufts of hair on his head, but he wraps his little fingers around her thumb and she tells him she hates herself for the exact same reason.
Even with puréed carrots dripping down his chin, he's cleaner than she's ever felt. She zooms the airplane spoon a little too quickly around his mouth so she doesn't have to think about it.
The thought doesn't leave her until her mother lifts the baby out of the highchair and the room falls silent, as if the walls have suddenly become aware of the two humming freezers inside that hold themselves like they're both on the verge of falling apart. She swears if you open her up, tiny icicles would guard the entrance of her heart as they do the freezer door. Only she holds no ice cream, just a pair of eyes as blue as the ocean at dawn.
When that name flickers into her conscious, she crashes the airplane spoon into an empty jar and wishes she herself could be that empty.
At one time, she dreamt of finding someone to take home to her family. It stopped when her dreams filled with a curtain of blonde hair and those eyes as pure and sparkling as a brook. She reasoned with herself that her family wasn't all that worth meeting; not with the father who works too late, the sister who dumped the baby on them before landing herself in rehab, and the mother who's had to rework her life around a child that isn't even hers. They used to be too loud, tangled Spanish mixing with English as they fought over takeout menus and the TV remote. Then, she would've blushed and apologized for her family, secretly proud of their endless energy. Now, the house is full of a silence only cut with the occasional burst of laughter from the baby.
It occurs to her, sometimes, that babies aren't supposed to be that quiet. But then again, most babies aren't born addicted to heroin.
There was a moment, before she threw herself into the strappy shoes of promiscuity, where she watched in awe as a giggling blonde bounced the baby, filling the house with so much sound she thought the walls might burst at the feat. She'd never seen the baby smile so big and she knew, without doubt, that it would never be about taking someone home to the family. This girl was home. This girl was family.
And that's why she could only be a dream.
She spends a lot of time worrying. Most of it is done barefoot, walking home as the rising sun catches up with her shadow. Sometimes she worries while sitting on the front lawn, wiggling her toes through the grass, as the baby tries his hardest to eat dirt. She never worries in bedrooms; especially not her own.
Half of her bed will always look the same: the imprint of a body left in the sheets, blanket lazily pulled back, a few stray hairs sleeping on the pillow. She doesn't touch it. She's not allowed to disturb the ghost of the girl who once called this room home.
At times she finds herself on the floor, wrapped up like a burrito in the zebra rug, staring up at the bed like it was the monstrous thing's fault for this whole mess.
When she does catch herself worrying, no matter the hour, she drags herself out onto the front steps with her dad's box of Cuban cigars. Sometimes her thoughts get lost in the dancing wisps of smoke. Other times, she sees a pale pair of legs twirling through the air and she has to hold her breath until the smoke disappears.
She knows the cigars have their hands wrapped around her neck, waiting for enough years to pass to claim her as their ghost. This, of all things, doesn't worry her.
She mostly worries about her mother: about how the baby's etched lines around her eyes and how her body sags with a story twice as long as her age; about the look her mother once wore as they passed two men holding hands.
Sometimes she's sure it would be better if her mom found her in bed with one of the faceless men who left marks on her body than if she found her with her fingers tangled in those of the girl who once danced through their living room.
She's definitely all girl, but when it comes down to it, she'd rather be a boy if it means she can let herself be in love.
This worries her as well, but not as much.
She's done worse for less.
Her mother once jokes she should just move out, with how little time she spends at home. The thought sticks with her for days, like a cloak over her shoulders as she expertly makes her way through the dark of someone else's hallway, and she has to admit it doesn't feel like home. But then again, the only place she's ever felt at home was in a pair of warm arms with long blonde hair falling over her shoulders.
She thinks about it as she quietly slips in the front door, the jingle of her keys barely making a dent in the hush of the shadowed house. Somewhere inside, the baby breathes deeply next to a monitor and her mother falls asleep to the constant sound. Her father will be home in the morning, or maybe the morning of the same day next week; she can never be sure. He's away as much as her.
It's funny, she thinks, as she stubs her toe on the wheel of the stroller, how accustomed she is to the mazes of other people's houses, yet she gets lost so easily in her own. It's funny. She doesn't notice she's crying until a tear falls between her breasts, rolling down to where fingers dug into her skin only hours ago.
The water hits her hard as she curls up at the bottom of her shower, wishing the soft bruises would wash off her skin as easily as the makeup washes off her face.
Her fingernails leave crescents in her palms as she pleas with foreign gods for the feeling of thin fingers tangling with her own to disappear. She's tried so hard to scrub away that feeling with the hands and mouths of strangers. It never works.
Maybe, she reconciles as she rests her head on the cool tiled wall, it's hard to feel at home in this house when she doesn't even feel at home in her own body.
At one time, she was her mother's little girl and she called her Mami, fists curled into her mother's colorful skirt as she danced around her legs. She followed her mother around the house with a little duster, running it along all surfaces as her mother vacuumed the carpets, and they both tackled the bathroom with pinched noses, complaining of the perfume mess her older sister left behind. She wanted to be exactly like her mother when she grew up.
Instead, she became (as her mother once put it while on the phone with her aunt) a shell.
She wonders if she can call herself a hermit crab and it turns to a thought about whether or not a hermit crab would pick her for a new shell if she were resting on the beach, but she catches herself halfway through wondering and realizes she sounds exactly like her.
The what ifs will kill you; that's what she once told her. She didn't expect a laugh and the hand creeping up the back of her shirt while she was told it'll only kill you if you're too afraid to ask.
Wrapped tightly in her zebra rug like a freshly-vacuumed cocoon, she wonders if her mother's proud of her. It's only as she emerges, hope crushed like the wings of a butterfly, that she realizes how long it's been since her mother's even seen her long enough to take in the maturing features of her face.
Something needs to change. She runs her fingers through the dust on top of her vanity as she leaves her room.
The baby has his hands shoved in his mouth when she comes home that afternoon, wrapped in a jacket she borrowed from one of them without any intentions of returning it. She likes leather. The baby looks up at her as if she's a stranger.
Her laugh is hollow as she thinks maybe she deserves that much.
There's a moment of hesitation in the doorway as she spots her mother resting on the couch, eyes fixed on a vacant spot halfway between the two of them. She approaches carefully, sidestepping the baby's play area on the carpet, waiting silently in front of the couch for an invitation. Her mother pats the cushion beside her and the couch dips as the space is filled.
Mija, her mother says. A hand tanned with age falls onto her thigh and she's surprised to see how ghostly she is in comparison. It's been a long day.
They're all long, if she thinks about it. She can fill the hours with as many men as her body can handle but the minutes creep by as if they hate her for walking away from that pair of ocean blue eyes. She was drowning. Even with kisses from those lips like life rafts, she was still struggling under the surface, thrashing out blindly with fists that should have been extended pinkies.
You aren't eating enough, her mother tells her.
She hears, you're skinny enough. You can stop.
The baby throws a plastic duck across the room and it quacks faintly as it hits a wall, landing in an overturned baseball hat that once sat on her father's head.
You used to smile a lot more, her mother says. She adds, though she doesn't need to, she used to be around a lot more.
She picks at a loose thread in the seam of one of the cushions, fingers working hard to avoid a dancing image of blonde hair and grinning blue eyes. The baby frowns at her like he knows exactly who's missing and whose fault it is that she doesn't come around anymore.
Are you proud of me? She blurts it out before her brain can register what her lips are doing and her own surprise is mirrored in her mother's face, penciled eyebrows raising into upside-down smiles.
It takes a decade for her mother to respond. The baby coos and it's only been ten seconds. Are you proud of yourself?
The sunlight catches one of the crystals hanging in the window and it tosses a rainbow across the floor that wavers slightly as the baby crawls into it, mesmerized by the colors. He holds his hands upwards as if communicating with those foreign gods, trying to lift the rainbow into the air and smacking the carpet as the colors stay draped across his legs.
I don't remember when I stopped following you around with the duster, she says.
Her mother smiles, creases appearing around her tired eyes. When you met Brittany. For two whole weeks she had you convinced you were a cat and you napped in patches of sunlight while I vacuumed.
For the first night in months, she chooses to stay at home. A few texts come in from men she merely labeled with numbers but she sets her phone on her dresser so she can change the sheets on her bed.
She's sitting on the rug with tears in her eyes when her father fills her doorway, respecting the invisible border she started enforcing years ago. For once, she finds herself wishing he'd step past it and take her in his arms, the way he did when she was little.
Instead, he speaks. They ask about you at the office; about the gorgeous girl whose pictures I have up everywhere. They still remember when you used to put notes in my briefcase.
She finds herself wiping the soft skin under her eyes and gravitating to the bed, perching on the edge. Despite her invitation, her father remains in the doorway.
I kept every note, he says. They're in the filing cabinet. Sometimes I pull them out to remember when I was your hero.
Papi, she says.
He smiles warmly and waves a hand in her direction. You've always been my little girl, nena.
I'm glad you're home, she tells him, instead of everything else that threatens to tumble through her lips. He understands.
There are some things she knows by heart: the mailman always comes at ten; pets never live long in her house; there are exactly thirty-eight notches on the white whicker bed in which she once spent her nights. Thirty-eight. Her fingers memorized each one.
She isn't sure how she ends up in this living room where cats rub at her ankles and photos of grinning blonde children hang haphazardly on the walls. The woman she once called her second mother pulls her into a crushing hug and she realizes she knows her by heart as well; her jasmine scent and that older set of eyes like tidal waves.
There's some sort of aching familiarity to the smell of baking cookies that lingers throughout the house and she focuses on that as she climbs the steps, avoiding yet another cat that naps in the least convenient spot, as all cats prefer to do.
(A sudden memory of falling asleep halfway up the staircase to her own bedroom hits her with great force and she remembers how her mother carried her to her bed, humming a lullaby under her breath.)
It isn't until she's knocking on a white bedroom door that she notices the small parade of cats that pace behind her as if she needs protection.
Last time she left this house, she cradled her heart between two shaking hands. The cats followed her to the front door.
The moment she meets those sparkling eyes, she's drawn forwards and backwards at once. Her lips want to meet their match; her lungs struggle for air. It's a battle that ends as a cautious hand slips in her own and she's tugged onto that white whicker bed that cries of home.
Her fingers instinctively cover the notches. The cats crowd at her feet.
Her name is said in a voice that sings the only song to match the beat of her heart and her veins pump out the tempo as she breaks through the surface of those ocean blue eyes.
Brittany, she says in return. It isn't enough to send the anxious cats away, so she says more. The baby loves that duck you got him.
It isn't what she wants to say, but what she wants is a mixed up I'm-sorry-I-miss-you-I-love-you-You're-breaking-me-You're-everything and what she does say seems to work. The cats back away as if no longer interested and take to lounging on any and all available furniture in the room.
She smiles at the one who crushes Barbie in the dollhouse.
You should come home, she says. Then she corrects, to my home. You should come to my home.
Your home, Brittany repeats.
It sounds like, you're home.
In her window, she keeps a mason jar that's half filled with notes scribbled on scraps of paper. Most of them are wishes. She's had it since her parents explained why the Fabray family goes to church every Sunday.
For the past two years, every wish has read: Brittany.
She cradles the jar in her arms for a moment, glancing into the blue sky out her window, muttering a silentthank-you. The baby's laughter fills the kitchen, bouncing down the halls and painting every wall with a light they've never seen before. When he stops to breathe, she can hear Brittany's voice weaving a silly song he's too young to understand that only consists of one word.