Franks and beans, canned tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Tuna noodle casserole, served in a series of chipped plates and bowls. If she was the eldest child in a foster home, she cooked. If someone else was older than her, she didn’t have to, but would clear the table or sweep the floor. She noticed how lazy girls got the boot, unless they got by in other ways.
How many houses had she lived in before aging out? The thick file under her bed could tell her, but she let the onionskin paper, index cards, triplicate layers, scalloped letters, clippings, and charts seethe in silence. They didn’t reveal the details of her life before child protective services took her away on the grounds of neglect.
Veronica’s body kept secrets from her mind, but sometimes dropped hints. She didn’t like to see electrical cords slithering around on the floor, preferring to coil and tuck them behind furniture. She startled easily, at worst emitting raw little shrieks that gave way to fury. She rarely experienced an emotional tie with another person without wanting to stickily garland it with sex. If friendship was a house, none of Veronica’s rooms had doors. Even…no, especially if it was inappropriate. She must have released some etheric semaphore the vulpine teachers and dads of high school friends used to pick up on. And now that she was well into her twenties, she ended up in bed with friends’ husbands. In confidence, over tea, her friends disclosed good and bad qualities, best and worst moments, raciest requests. They were vetted. Nose hairs trimmed. Underwear clean.
These husbands emitted an ursine domesticity she liked to banish, to remind them of what they really were. As good as their opportunities. Panting, filthy, potent. When her friends told her their husbands were suddenly so much better in bed, she felt a mix of benevolence and pride. She’d almost roll her eyes and say, “You’re welcome.” And best of all, if they ever got crosswise with her, she could detonate the truth with a smile.
But now that she had been born again in Pastor Steve’s church, the mars in her virtue had been washed clean by the blood of the lamb.
She lost the mars and her boyfriend, too, the loyal one who filled in the gaps between Sharon’s Joe and Donna’s Rich. Dirk didn’t want to become born again. He was too invested, didn’t believe his past could be erased, any more than the prison tattoo of her name on his left shoulder blade, or the artist-inked one of Taffy’s name on his bicep. May she rest in peace. Accepting Jesus into his heart wouldn’t erase his prison record on earth.
When Dirk looked at Veronica, her past clanged down on her like a cage from above. Dirk would always see her as Ronni, the girl who moved in with him when she aged out of the system at 18, and she would see the man who did time in her place.
Dirk thought he noticed her first, through the amber-tinted sunglasses that folded down into an oval stack and slid into a zippered case. He wore them while landscaping, or while he was driving his beater pickup (nickname: Shitbird), but if he was in the Trans Am (nickname: Delilah) he switched over to aviators.
He later liked to say, when holding court in bars, that the axis of his life turned on a telephone pole. Thumbtacking his flyer on the tar-brushed surface led to Mrs. Pritchett calling him, which led to meeting Ronni, which led to losing Taffy, which led to the lockup, and then losing Ronni, and then getting her back, and then losing her again, and then swearing off love, and then he met Sue Lynn, and it’s been…what, 20-some years with Sue Lynn, time flies.
The Pritchetts were Veronica’s last foster family.
But Dirk did not see Veronica first. Every day, she whirred through the house like a minute hand. As she swept the front porch, she noticed his Fu Manchu mustache, his ropy physique that snapped into relief while pushing the manual mower upslope. At the side window, she observed his oblong belly heave above his belt as he squatted to rip weeds. On the patio, where she dangled wet clothing and took it down sun-warm and stiff, he weed-whacked in his faded Genesis t-shirt .
It didn’t take long for him to offer her a cigarette, and then she was working for him, getting twice the yardwork done in half the time. It didn’t take long for him to offer her a joint, and then they were going at it in someone’s dank redwood shed, in between a broken wheelbarrow and a slack box of horseshoes and stakes.
Dirk was her first real boyfriend. She had really lucked out, he liked to say, by snaring the attention of an older, successful entrepreneur instead of a pimply rube who worked at a fast food restaurant. If a pimply rube who worked at a fast food restaurant had paid attention to her before Dirk did, she knew she would have, embarrassingly, become his girlfriend. She would have taken a job at the same fast food restaurant and they would have risen up the greasy ranks together, leaving polyester behind entirely, driving company-car Cadillacs with A/C and power windows from franchise to franchise: the meet-cute regional managers with eagle eyes, sharp suits, and glad hands. Tools.
The way Dirk put it, Veronica came this close to being a tool. Dirk thought a lot of people were tools. Not her fault, just the way these multinational corporations prey on the young and rootless. He made his own way, played by his own rules. Even so, his rants didn’t dull the shine of her stash of fast food restaurant premium glasses. The dueling burger chains housed her childhood’s sole consistency.
Weeks after their first tryst, but after many repetitions in uncomfortable spaces, Dirk picked her up at the Pritchetts. The usual Genesis Trespass 8-track extended from the player, unpushed. The day before, he’d asked her about her birthday, aiming to find out her sign. She told him it was not only approaching, but the one that would spring her into an indifferent world.
“Ronni, I gotta tell you,” Dirk said.
In those long seconds that stretched out like chewing gum, she knew it was already over, as if her sweetness had bloomed into something rank since they last clinched. Her skinny legs rigid as concertina wire. She drifted the dark mass of her hair forward. And still she felt like she was falling through the bench seat. Maybe that’s why her hand moved from her hair to the shag carpeted dash. Something to hold onto.
“I have an old lady.” He glanced sideways.
Inside she sagged, but she wouldn’t let her spine show it.
“But my old lady—not that old, by the way, has three years on me—we believe in sharing. We share each other and we like to share our lovers, too.”
Veronica’s eyebrow jumped.
“Her name is Taffy. She’s a real great lady. We used to be all hung up on the monogamy trip, but then we got turned on to free love by this far-out couple we met at a Dead show. First I thought her husband was some kind of faggot. But…it’s a different thing, and the usual rules don’t apply.”
She continued to force him to talk by keeping her mouth shut, though she was full of questions.
“There’s nothing better than really watching my old lady get off without distractions. It’s like the opposite of selfish…a gift.”
She felt warm between her legs despite herself, as if in the path of a lesser sun.
“When I first saw you, I gotta be honest, I thought, ‘That girl might really dig the scene.’
Her cheeks flushed. He could tell how she only guessed at rules, and didn’t know what she didn’t know. How wrong things didn’t feel wrong.
“You have this free-spirit vibe. So why don’t you come over after work. I told Taffy all about you, and she’s really jazzed. She told me to invite you over. She’s a hell of a cook, Taffy is. A real earth mother type.”
Earth mother? She imagined a fleshy muumuu-wearing mama who smelled of patchouli, with fuzzy armpits. Not her speed. But the Taffy who walked out of the house when Dirk pulled up and bip-bipped the horn looked like she could be one of Don Henley’s exes: flowing locks, baby-oil tan, Barbarella curves, and a great big Carly Simon smile. Veronica felt like a stick insect, instantly wanted to be her, to woman that way. Taffy threw her arms and her honeysuckle smell around Veronica. That was all it took.