Emmeline felt it finally, that wonderful expansion that came with a couple drinks. The spaces between her words. The width of her smile. She felt it all, along with the gaze of the man on the other side of the yard, looking down his beer bottle at her as he drank. He pulled the bottle away and it seemed he might smile. He didn’t.
She looked up into the tree above her, thinking Adam Pemberton, you had better get over here and say hello.
She was at a backyard barbecue party in Britt, the small Iowan town where she grew up. In her parents’ house next door, Henry slept in a cot beside her childhood bed. It was strange to not have him hanging onto her legs or pulling on her hands. Without him, she felt weightless.
A woman standing by the pool peeled her dress up and over her head, just like that. She was all legs, tan and white bikini. Oh dear, is this what young people do now? Emmeline felt eighty, not thirty-eight. The woman was only a girl, nineteen at the most.
Emmeline looked up at hearing her name.
“Where have you been hiding yourself?” Adam said.
“I moved away.”
“I know,” he said.
He seemed worn. She hadn’t seen him in the twenty years since she left to study at the University of Chicago. Above his beard, there were faint scars on his cheeks. She remembered the teenage boy with hair falling in his eyes, six foot something overnight, and his face pocked red and purple with acne.
“Who the fuck is the girl in the bikini?” Emmeline was surprised at the anger in her voice.
Adam cast a look over his shoulder. “Sirena.”
“That doesn’t help.”
“Someone’s kid. We’re at that age now. Our friends have grown up kids.”
Emmeline wasn’t sure they ever shared friends at school. She had hers and he had his.
“Does that make her off limits for you?” she said.
“You know I’m not interested in that stuff.”
“What stuff? The female body?”
“The female body I like,” he said. “It’s the tan and tiny bikini and all that shit.”
“You prefer them pale, bitter, and wearing black?”
“You know I do.”
She did know. That was her in high school, and him with a crush he couldn’t hide for anything.
His gaze dropped to her left hand again—earlier she’d seen his eyes cover her in two roving sweeps. Perhaps he expected a ring to magically appear there in the meantime.
“Tim and I divorced,” she said.
"Man. I thought you guys were solid.”
She wanted to say, we were, for a long time. Twenty-goddamned-years.
“I’ve had a son, Henry,” she said. “He’s eighteen months old.”
Emmeline shook her head and left it at that. “I’ve moved back in with my folks for a bit. We’ll get a place of our own soon.”
Adam stared at her. “I can’t believe you’re here, Emmeline.”
“The one and only.” She drained her glass. “What about you?”
“Me? I never left. I own the hardware store in town now.”
He nodded. “Changed the name, but yeah. Bert’s.”
Adam opened the door of his old Ford pickup for her with a gallant sweep of his arm as if it was a limo. He turned on the ignition and Sigur Rós poured out unintelligible and anthem-like.
It was ten o’clock. Used to be that nights out got started at this time, but now, this was her bedtime.
“Where to?" Adam asked.
“I don’t mind where you take me.”
“Girls always mind.”
Emmeline looked over at him. No one had called her a girl in a long time and she didn’t know whether to be flattered or offended. She blamed it on those academics at the college with whom she had worked and socialized for the past sixteen years—everyone so careful and politically correct that her world had become dull, generic.
“Take me to your place,” Emmeline said.
Adam glanced at her, longer this time. “All right.” His voice was gentle and happy and in her bones she knew it hadn’t sounded like that for a while.
Emmeline wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t this. Adam lived in a small house on a quiet road. The street lamp cast a pool of blue-white light that fizzled in the warm air. The house was clapboard, the yard neat. It used to be Margie Wilson’s house. Emmeline couldn’t say that, knowing it would shame him—that Margie Wilson used to live here and now he did.
Adam opened the front door for her and a pretty white cat greeted them.
“Adele,” Adam said. “It’s my dad’s cat.”
A voice called from the back of the house, “Adam?”
“Hang on,” he said to her and left for the voice.
Emmeline stayed for a minute in the empty hallway—even Adele left her there—before moving toward the low murmur of voices. She was shocked when she saw Adam’s father, Mr. Pemberton, in the kitchen sitting at the table. He lifted his face, his eyes blue and rheumy, moving across her, unseeing.
Adam was at the sink with his back to both of them, getting a glass of water. Emmeline stared at this blind man who couldn’t have been more than seventy but seemed twenty years older. He was thin, diminished.
“Hello, Mr Pemberton,” she said. “It’s Emmeline Harris.”
Adam put the glass on the table and took his father’s hand so that it closed around the glass. “Dad, you remember Emmeline, don’t you?”
“Emmeline Harris, did you say?”
“That’s right,” she said. “You taught me chemistry years ago. 1990 and '91.”
“Pretty girl,” Mr Pemberton said.
Adam looked over at her and raised an eyebrow.
“I was hoping you remembered me as intelligent, given you taught me.”
“I don’t think chemistry was your strong suit.”
Emmeline laughed. “No, sir. You’re right there.”
Mr Pemberton closed his eyes. “So, I’ll be a bit in the way here,” he said.
“You’re fine, Dad. We’ll go to the front room.”
Mr Pemberton took the transistor radio beside him. With sure, practiced fingers, he turned it on—Coltrane and his saxophone. It was dismissive, class dismissed.
Adam grabbed a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. He bent his head near his father’s ear and said, “Give us a yell if you want anything.”
Mr Pemberton waved a hand, impatiently.
Emmeline followed Adam from the kitchen. In the front room, a long couch spanned the length of one wall, facing an oversized television and massive speakers. It was a bachelor’s set up. The only light came from the street through the window.
“I didn’t mention Dad before. I thought he’d be asleep.”
“That’s no problem,” Emmeline said, and took a seat beside Adam on the couch, realizing it was too far away.
Adam glanced at the space between them. “It’s not ideal, is it? Dad out there?”
They hadn’t closed the door and a yellow triangle of light fell from the kitchen to the hallway floor.
Emmeline shrugged. “It’s fine,” she said, when it wasn’t, not at all.
Adam went to the stereo. “Any preferences?”
“I liked the Sigur Rós you had on in the truck.”
He smiled at her, and maybe it was enough to recognize the music, for her to say that she liked them, rather than, what on earth are they saying? It probably put her into a special class of one in this place.
“Sigur Rós means Victory Rose in Icelandic,” she said, unable to help herself.
“Smarty pants,” he said gently.
So there was more Sigur Rós, and the white streetlight fell in strips through the slat blinds of Margie Wilson’s house and Adam Pemberton poured the drinks.
“Dad wasn’t getting looked after properly at the nursing home,” Adam said. “So here he is.”
Emmeline didn’t want to know what was or wasn’t happening at the home.
Adam handed her a glass. “You didn’t want coffee, did you?”
She shook her head, not wanting to drink anything other than alcohol and definitely not wanting to go back into that kitchen.
“You okay?” Adam said.
Adam pushed his hand across the back of his neck and said, “He can still be a total asshole.”
Emmeline laughed. “I can’t believe my chemistry teacher admitted that he thought I was dumb.”
“But pretty,” Adam said. “Jesus, Emmeline. You were the smartest girl there.”
“No, I wasn’t. Remember Angie Roberts? Karen Chu?”
“I only remember Emmeline Harris.”
She could not breathe. She got an instant picture of herself at seventeen—a different person. A girl.
The music sounded like sex, the way it grinded and then built up and up. The way it soared. She wanted to drag Adam against her, on top of her, to stare into his face and ask, why are you living here? How can you bear seeing your dad like that every single day? Or maybe she didn’t really care and simply wanted Adam, to drown with him in this room saturated with guitar and drums that beat in her blood like the end of the world. Smarty pants. Pretty girl.
Adam was still sitting there beside her, his drink in both hands, staring at the glass. He used to walk home from school, refusing to get a ride with his dad. He used to redden all the way to his hairline when Emmeline said anything to him. It made her ache. I’m not that special, she had wanted to say. Now, she liked to remember it—a boy who blushed in a second because of her.
Emmeline slid closer to him until her knee was touching his. “So here we are,” she said.
He glanced over at her, smiled like he was trying to hide it. “Here we are.”
Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in Best Australian Short Stories, New World Writing, Cleaver Magazine, Litro Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Bartleby Snopes, Gravel, and Jellyfish Review among others. One of her short stories has been made into a film by the production company, Jungle. She lives in Australia. You can find her online here and on Twitter @melgoodewriter.