portion of the artwork for Paula Bomer's story

Cleveland Circle House
Paula Bomer

Mary had grown up in a house where her father loved her because he thought she was beautiful and brilliant and her mother despised her for these same qualities. In truth, she was neither beautiful nor brilliant. She was an awkward girl, with a long torso and short legs, prone to nervousness, whose chin dropped too far down her neck. And although she was a hard worker, she never achieved better than slightly above average grades. She’d been accepted to only one college. But her father insisted on being proud of her, regardless. She was going off to college, in Boston. This was more than he had ever done.

It was 1986. At the very beginning of her freshman year at Boston University, she declared her major in psychology. This was partly due to her attachment to Larissa, a dark-haired, zaftig girl she met in Introduction to Psychology 101. Larissa had read Freud and Jung. Larissa impressed Mary immensely. The two girls decided that spring that in the summer they would get an apartment together in Allston and get jobs. Mary called her father a week before she was to move into the apartment.

“Dad, I’m getting an apartment with a friend.”

“Is that allowed?”

“Of course, Dad.”

“You’re not coming home this summer? I’ll miss you so much.”

“I’m going to try to get a job in my field, in psychology,” Mary said, not knowing at all what that meant. “It’s a good opportunity.”

“I’ll buy you a car,” he said, quietly. “I’ll buy you a car if you come home.”

“Oh, Dad.” Mary’s face went hot. “I’m not coming home.”

She’d been home at Christmas. She’d been looking forward to going home at Christmas and then, when she got there, she was immediately miserable. Everything was exactly the same, but more so. Her mother’s face shoved angrily in a newspaper. Her father bouncing around, trying to think of fun things to do, his hands in the air, saying, “Let’s go to the mall!” For some reason, she’d assumed her absence would change things, would make things better. It hadn’t.

* * *

The apartment was a small two bedroom in an ugly gray building on the corner of Commonwealth and Harvard avenues in the very center of the neighborhood of Allston, a working-class neighborhood of small apartment buildings and modest houses that was very much a student ghetto. The first week, Mary would leap up the two flights of creaking, slightly malodorous stairs to their apartment, overcome with excitement. Her bedroom faced Harvard Ave.; it was noisy. Larissa got the back bedroom, equally small and dingy, but quiet at night.

Larissa furnished the apartment within a week. There was a shiny red and silver 1950s table with matching chairs, vintage rock posters lovingly stuck on the walls with blue gum so as not to damage them, and a purple velvet couch that barely fit in the tiny space that passed for a living room. Larissa had already found a job at the coolest record store on Newbury Street.

The night they both moved in, Larissa sat on the purple couch, stroking it with one hand. In her other hand, she held a cigarette. She had picked up smoking to lose weight and it was working. “Have you found a job yet?”

Mary let out a ragged breath. “I have an interview tomorrow. At a halfway house for former institutionalized mental patients.”

“Really? That’s fascinating.” Larissa blew a smoke ring toward the ceiling.

“I want a job in my field,” Mary said.

* * *

The next day, bright and early, Mary put on her only nice skirt and a collared white blouse. She brushed her hair too much, ripping the brush through it over and over, and it ended up staticky and wild, swirling upward and tickling her ears. She tried to barrette it down with some success. Then she took the T out to Cleveland Circle. It took about 20 minutes and it was above ground the whole way. The sun shone brilliantly, trees swayed their green leaves in the light wind. It was June in New England; she was interviewing for a job in her field. Her body vibrated with the possibility of it all.

She got off after the T had climbed a long hill that seemed to be the end of Boston and the beginning of the suburbs. The house was right there. She was 40 minutes early for her interview and beginning to sweat. It had suddenly gotten muggy. The house was a large, old Victorian, with an enormous porch and two huge elm trees in the sloping front yard. While she stood there staring at the house, a man came out and sat in a chair on the porch and lit a cigarette. She ducked her head and began walking and continued to walk around until she was only 15 minutes early for her interview, at which time she walked up the wooden steps onto the porch. At this point, she was damp with sweat and there were three men and one woman out on the porch, smoking. One man stood nervously.

“Hi, I’m here for an interview,” she said to no one in particular. The woman got up and went to the door.

“Brigid!” she screamed. “Brigid!”

“Oh, excuse me,” Mary said, trying to get past the screaming woman. “I’ll just go in and find her.”

Brigid came through a hall and it was suddenly clear that here was the woman she would meet and talk to, who worked here, the woman she spoke with on the phone when scheduling the interview, and Mary had stupidly forgotten her name, had not written it down either—and that all the other people on the porch were “clients,” as they were called.

“Hi, I’m Brigid. You must be Mary. You’re early.”

“Yes. I’m a bit early, sorry.” They shook hands.

“That’s OK. Come in here, to the office.”

They entered a small, musty room directly inside the house. “Sit down,” Brigid said, gesturing to a couch. She sat at a desk and swiveled toward Mary.

“I’ll just explain a bit about the place. I’m the manager. I’ve been working here for four years,” she said. “We have a weekly group meeting which either the owner, Ahmed, or his wife, Laura, attends. The meetings are a part of the work week. You get paid for attending them. It’s an important part of the job, actually. We all need to talk about how things are going, how it’s all affecting us. The clients can be very tricky, behaving one way for one of us, another way for another one of us. Particularly the borderlines. They’re the most tricky.” Brigid smiled at this.

“I see,” said Mary, but in truth, she was blind with fear and could barely see Brigid sitting right in front of her. Borderlines? She had read about them for an abnormal psychology class.

Brigid took out a blue ice tray from a cupboard. “This is how we dispense the meds. See? Each one is labeled. You fill them up according to what they get. Changes are always noted in the med book, which is in this cupboard as well. We give out meds two times a day, morning and evening. And some clients can request an extra Valium or something like that. It’s all in the med book. In the beginning, you’ll always be doing your shift with someone who’s been working here for a while and usually that will be me. You won’t be expected to do all this at once.” She smiled at Mary. She had big, horsey teeth. She wasn’t a pretty woman, but she wasn’t ugly either.

* * *

When Mary got home it wasn’t quite yet noon. She went straight to her room and fell asleep for three hours.

* * *

She started work the following Monday. She arrived early, but not so early that she had to walk around for a half an hour. This time, she stopped and said hello to the same group of smokers that were there on the day of her interview, and introduced herself.

“I’m Carol,” a woman said, her voice raspy from smoke.

“Nice to meet you.”

Carol’s face was terribly pockmarked. Her hair was greasy and she was very overweight. No one else said anything. They just stared.

“Nice to meet all of you,” Mary said and entered the house.

Brigid was in the office with the door open, dispensing meds. A few clients waited patiently as she scooped out a number of pills and put them in their hands.

“You’re early.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Brigid said, as the last person waiting took their meds. “You like to apologize, don’t you?”

“I don’t know.” Mary reddened.

“You know what they say about people who are early?”

“What?”

“They’re anxious. Early people are anxious, on-time people are obsessive compulsive, and late people are hostile, or passive-aggressively hostile.”

“I never read that in any of my psych books.”

“I bet you haven’t.”

The shift was eight hours, from nine until five. She also would have a night shift once a week, which was six hours long, from five until eleven. At that point, the house was locked up until the morning. Brigid introduced her to all of the clients who were lingering around, showed her the rooms they slept in, the bathrooms, the two common rooms. One of the common rooms, on the ground floor, had a television set turned on at all times. This was where the majority of the clients hung out. Toward the end of the shift, Brigid took her into the office and closed the door.

“So, what do you think?”

“It all seems fine.” Mary didn’t know what to say.

“I’ll write in the log book, but I thought you might want to know how that goes, or talk to me about anything you may have observed.”

“OK.”

“Well, I think Carol seems depressed. She’s manic depressive and I think she may be cycling into a depression.”

“What should we do?”

“Make note of it, for one. And then bring it up during meeting time.”

This didn’t seem like doing a whole lot. “Can we do anything for her?”

Brigid smiled. “Like what?”

“Treat her in some way?”

“We could maybe up her anti-depressants, but she’s on a ton of meds as it is, so we try not to. Listen, I was going to assign you two clients to spend extra time with. Everyone here has two clients who they take out for coffee or something like that, about once a week. If you are here alone, you can spend some time with them in their room. It’s an hour a week, approximately. Would you like Carol to be one of them?”

“OK.” Mary didn’t actually want Carol. Carol disgusted her. But that was what she was here for, she told herself. To help these people.

“And how about Bob?”

“The skinny man with the glasses?”

“Yes. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic and he’s also mildly retarded. We call that dual-diagnosed. He’s a sweetie. He loves to go to the pizza place for coffee. Although, we’re trying to cut back his coffee intake. Try and get him to get decaf. The caffeine makes him more paranoid.”

“I see.”

* * *

By Friday, Mary felt ready for something and she wasn’t sure what it was, but it turned out she was ready to get drunk for the first time in her life. Or at least, that’s what happened.

Darrell and Clay, friends of Larissa’s, were having a party. Larissa’s face was expertly powdered a dull white and her lips were painted red. She carried a vintage silver purse that shone in the summer night. She smoked a joint as they walked to the party.

Besides smoking cigarettes, Larissa had begun smoking pot at night, which Mary found alarming, but fascinating as well.

“Want some?” Larissa asked, holding the joint out to her.

“No, thanks.”

“You know, I’m thinking of switching to a film major next year.”

“Really? Why? Why would you do that?”

“Because I want to make movies. I want to make art.”

“Oh.” Mary hunched her shoulders down, feeling terribly disappointed. “What about understanding the world? Understanding human nature? Or helping people?”

“I never wanted to help people,” Larissa said, as they entered Darrell and Clay’s apartment. “That’s your thing. And I think I can better understand the world through art, through movies.”

* * *

The party was big and loud. Music blared—The Cure, The Cult, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Smiths, Meat Beat Manifesto. Where Mary grew up, people listened to Foreigner or Van Halen. Just being in the room with these people, the music playing, made her feel sophisticated. The room was filled with smoke and Mary kept going back to the keg.

“My father loves me so much, he offered to buy me a car to come home. I said, No way. I’m staying in Boston,” she said to three or four people at different times.

“Why does my mother hate me? Why? I never did anything to her, I didn’t,” she said to Darrell, at around two in the morning. They were sitting on the couch and she was leaning into his shoulder, feeling very emotional. It felt good, to be so full of feeling. The party was over. Only she and Larissa remained. And Larissa had disappeared into a bedroom with Clay.

Darrell looked down at her. He tried to say something, but he was too drunk and his mouth just hung open for a while.

“I think my father would sleep with me if he could. I think he loves me that much.” The words came out, dirty and awful. The next morning, waking on the very same couch at Darrell and Clay’s house, she would remember saying those words, and her head throbbed.

* * *

Monday at work, Brigid said, “Why don’t you take Bill out for some coffee? Try to make it decaf, OK?” She handed Mary three dollars.

Bill was standing in the TV room, watching the television with the sound off. He stood back in the corner, wringing his hands. He was an exceptionally thin man, tall with gray hair. His head lolled to the side and he wore very thick glasses. Looking at him, you could see that something was wrong with him. Not all the clients were like that. Some looked normal and even acted semi-normal. But Bill looked wrong.

“Bill, would you like to go out and get some coffee?” Mary asked.

“Sure,” he said; his voice was thick and slow, ruined by cigarettes and medication.

It was warm and clear outside. They crossed the wide expanse of Commonwealth Avenue and turned down to Brighton Avenue where there was a pizza shop. Inside, Mary ordered two coffees, both decaf. She felt embarrassed to be here in public with this man; she felt like the young men behind the counter were looking at her strangely. They sat down together at a booth and Bill lit a cigarette.

“They know me here, I come here a lot,” he whispered.

“That’s nice,” Mary said.

“Sometimes, they give me the evil eye.”

“Excuse me?”

Bill scrunched his forehead and leaned over the table toward Mary. “This,” he said. “They do this.” His eyes looked exactly the same behind his thick glasses. Then he sat up. “But I’m not afraid of them. It’s just a message. I get messages all the time.”

“No one is giving you any messages, Bill,” said Mary. But she wasn’t sure if that was true. Wherever Bill went, she was sure that people gave him funny looks. Hell, she felt the men who worked here were looking at her strangely, just because she was with him. “People may look at you a little oddly, but it’s not a secret message. I think shaving would help. A clean shaven face gets less looks.”

“I don’t like to shave,” Bill said, rubbing his face, which was covered with erratic gray stubble. “The beard protects me. It protects me from them knowing who I am.”

“It’s OK that they know who you are. You don’t need protection, Bill. No one is out to get you.”

He laughed gently. “You’re young. You don’t know anything.”

This made Mary blush. “Tell me about yourself,” she said, trying to change the subject. “Where are you from? How long have you been living at Cleveland House?”

“I’m from Waltham. I’ve been in Cleveland House for four years, ever since I got out of the state hospital.”

“Do you like it here? I bet it’s nicer than the hospital.”

“Sure. There aren’t as many crazies here. I don’t like the crazies. I know we’re all a little crazy, but they had the real crazies in the hospital.”

Bill stood up and went to the counter and Mary watched him. He got a refill of coffee and sat down and lit another cigarette. “I hate decaf. I like the real stuff.”

“Brigid doesn’t think the caffeine is good for you, Bill.”

“I know. But what’s a man to do? It’s my only fun. I don’t drink beer anymore. I don’t have any ladies anymore.”

Mary didn’t know what to do. To grab the cup away from him seemed cruel. And she didn’t think she had it in her to do that, anyway. Who was she? A young college student. He was a grown man, regardless of everything else.

As they walked back quietly, she said, “I enjoyed talking with you, Bill. Anytime you want to talk, you can come and get me. And try to remember, no one is out to get you.”

“That’s nice,” he said, as they walked up the porch steps. “You’re a pretty girl. I like you.” And then he patted her on the shoulder.

* * *

The weeks passed. Mary learned how to fill the ice cube tray and made sure that everyone took their meds. As time went on, the futility of it all became apparent. Would telling Bill that no one was out to get him ever convince him otherwise? He had delusions long before he met her. Mary began to focus on the practical, like Brigid, like all the others who worked at Cleveland House. She tried to make sure the clients were all shaved and showered. She wanted their shirts tucked in. She wanted them in clean clothes. She wanted the bad smells to go away. She wanted them to do their chores and brush their teeth. The wild mood swings, the delusions, the overwhelming sadness and rages and fears—what really could be done about those? They came and went, taking over people and then setting them free. The blue and white and pink and red pills Mary doled out seemed to help some. If nothing else, they dulled the whole experience of life. Mary began to think that that was the best that could be done. To mother them about their daily life and to medicate them so they didn’t feel so deeply.

* * *

It was the middle of August, a Monday, and the group session was being led by Ahmed’s wife, Laura. Brigid was there, as well as a graduate student named Dave and another man, Roger, who worked there but also lived in another one of Ahmed’s houses. He had been a client, but now he worked there. This gave Mary a sense of hope—They can be healed! They can get better! Normal even!—but she also kept her distance from him. She was ashamed to admit it, but Roger frightened her.

Laura was a petite brunette, with a very gentle voice. She began the group often by asking someone to “share” and then the person to the left of that person would share, and so on, until everyone had shared. Today was different.

“I wanted to start by sharing myself,” she said. “My sister had a baby who died this week. The baby was born dead. It was a full-term baby. She named the baby Alexandra. She was able to hold her little girl. I was there at the hospital with her husband to witness the birth. She asked me to take pictures of her holding Alexandra, which at first …” Here, for a minute, Laura faltered. “Which at first bothered me. But I did what my sister asked. What else could I do? In her moment of grief and sadness? I felt obliged to give her at least that, to honor her wish. So I took a picture. And then she asked me to hold her daughter, and her husband took a picture. And I took a picture of her husband holding Alexandra, too.”

The one rule about group was that no one was allowed to say anything to the person speaking. Everyone just listened and then when the turn ended, everyone else took turns saying “thank you.”

Laura reached in her purse. “I now really understand her request. This was her daughter, dead or not. She was going to remember her forever. Why pretend not to? The days of trying to forget these things are thankfully over. No one forgets giving birth to a dead child. No one ever has, or will.”

“Thank you,” said Dave.

“Thank you,” Mary said, out of obligation.

“I’m not done yet,” Laura said, a hint of peevishness in her voice. “I brought the picture of myself holding Alexandra here to share with you all. I am going to pass it around. I, too, am grieving the loss of my niece. And I would like to share my pain here. That’s what group is for.”

Mary’s head felt very light and her ears started to ring. The picture came around and she looked at it. In it, Laura looked down at the blue infant in her arms, not at the camera. Self-consciously, Mary held onto the photo for a moment, attempting to disguise her fear and disgust.

At the end of the session, they all took turns hugging each other. They often did that, but sometimes they did some other kind of “touch” therapy. Mary truly hated this part of the sessions. Just because they worked together didn’t mean they should touch one another. She didn’t understand the logic of it. As Laura came toward her for their hug, Mary gritted her teeth. Slap, slap! She imagined slapping Laura, not hugging her. Then she hugged her.

* * *

The next week Mary’s father called.

“I’m coming to visit you next weekend!”

“Is Mom coming, too?” Mary asked, surprising herself with the bitterness in her voice.

“She doesn’t want to,” he said flatly. “But I’m desperate to see you, Mary. It’s been too long!”

A flash of memory from Christmas passed through Mary’s head. Her mother’s back to her, angrily doing the dishes. Her father, wringing his hands, asking her, “What record should I put on, Mary? What would you like to hear?”

“You’ll have to stay at a hotel,” Mary said. “We don’t have a lot of room here.”

“OK. That’s not a problem.” His voice sounded hurt. Mary’s heart flooded with shame. She was hurting the only person who’d ever been good to her. But the truth was, their apartment was too small and Larissa smoked so much weed now that there was no way her father could stay here.

“Great, Dad. Call me when you get here.”

* * *

The day before her father arrived, Mary was working her only night shift and she was alone. It had been a relatively quiet night, except for Carol, who roamed through the common rooms, the hallways, and kitchen, and then did it all over again. And again. Muttering to herself, her hands balled up in fists. She had clearly cycled out of her depression. Something else was going on now.

It had been weeks since Mary had spent a special hour with Carol. She never missed her weekly coffee with Bill. She liked Bill. But she’d been avoiding Carol. Mary walked into the common room where Carol was at that moment.

“Carol,” Mary said, but Carol ignored her and tried to walk past, muttering angrily. “Carol, wait.” Mary followed her and grabbed her shoulder.

Carol turned around quickly and Mary drew her breath. She was breathing heavily, her face contorted with rage, her lips pulled back, revealing filthy teeth. For a moment, Mary was afraid.

“Carol, would you like to talk with me? In your room? I’m the only one here tonight, but I thought we could spend some time together here, at the house.”

Ooh kaay,” Carol said, with a nasty, fake enthusiasm. “OK, miss pretty. Whatever you say, miss pretty.”

“Come, let’s go to your room. You seem angry. Let’s talk.”

“But of course, miss pretty. You’re the boss. Aren’t you?” she hissed. But she began walking to her room.

Mary followed her upstairs into her room. Carol walked up to her dresser and grabbed a tube of cream.

“I want to be pretty like you,” said Carol, her voice falsely sweet. “Will you help me? Put this on me. Help me put this on,” she said, and gave Mary the tube of cream. It was a retinol cream, for acne. Mary had helped her apply it before, during one of their special hours. It was something Carol liked to do.

“You should wash your face first.”

You should wash your face first,” Carol mocked. Then, darkly, “Bitch. You’re a bitch.”

“You shouldn’t call me that, Carol. I just think it works better if you put it on a clean face.”

“What’s so dirty about me? Huh? You think I’m dirty? ’Cause I fucked your precious Bill today? I did, you know. I fuck everyone here. You think you’re so pretty. Don’t you? Don’t you? This is what they like,” she said, grabbing her enormous breasts. “They like this, you see? You see?”

“Carol, I’d like to give you an extra Valium. I’ll be right back. Wash your face. We’ll put the cream on. And … brush your teeth. I’ll be right back.”

Mary ran down to the office. There was a beeper number for Ahmed, to be used only in emergencies. There was also a beeper number for Brigid. She beeped Brigid. She then grabbed two Valiums and brought them upstairs.

Carol was lying on her bed. Her hands were up her shirt and she was massaging herself and moaning obscenely.

“Here, Carol. I want you to take these.”

“No.”

“Stop doing that. It’s inappropriate.”

Fuck you. You think just ’cause I’m crazy I don’t like to fuck? What do you know? Bitch. You’ve never been fucked, that’s your problem.”

“Take these,” Mary said, standing there with her hand held out.

Carol took the pills and put them in her mouth. Then she opened her mouth wide, showing the two white pills on her tongue.

“Swallow them, Carol.”

Carol stood then, groaning, sticking her tongue out defiantly, the pills still there, and began massaging her breasts again.

“I said, swallow them.” Mary grabbed Carol’s jaw and tried to shut it. For such a big woman, behaving in such an intimidating fashion, she felt like Jell-O in Mary’s hands and fell backward on the bed as Mary mashed her jaw together. Carol began laughing, muffled by Mary’s hands, but laughing all the same. Then Mary stood back and slapped her, hard, across the face.

Carol sat up. “Oooh, you’re not supposed to do that.”

“You’re a cow. A disgusting cow.”

Oooh, you’re not supposed to talk to me that way. Tsk tsk. I always knew you were bad.” Then she began to laugh again.

Blood poured into Mary’s face, the same blood that made her blush easily, the same blood that betrayed her nervous nature, that showed her easy shame, and she pulled back her arm and punched Carol’s soft, greasy face, as hard as she could. A glistening circle of red appeared on Carol’s mouth and began dripping down her chin. She cowered on the bed, looking momentarily frightened. Then she smiled.

“That was wrong. You did the wrong thing, missy.”

The phone rang. Horrified, Mary ran down the stairs. It was Brigid.

“I think Carol is really manic,” Mary said.

“Can you get her to take some extra Valium?”

“I’m trying, but she’s not being very cooperative.”

“Well, keep trying.”

“I need help.” There was a silence. “I’m afraid.”

“She won’t hurt you. She may seem menacing, but she’s never hurt anybody.”

“I think she should be hospitalized.”

“Maybe I should come.”

“Maybe I should call the hospital?”

“You could do that. Call an ambulance. I feel like I should be there for such a decision, but … do whatever you think is right.”

The ambulance came in five minutes. Maybe, Mary thought, no one would find out she hit Carol. Or believe her. A crazy woman’s word against hers. The two paramedics escorted her out as Mary stood on the porch. It was dark and uniquely cold for August, although it wouldn’t be August much longer.

“What happened to her mouth?” asked one of the paramedics. He was holding Carol’s arm, standing right in front of Mary.

“I don’t know,” Mary lied, her right hand shoved deep in her jeans’ pocket. “She’s been out of control for hours. That’s why I called you guys.”

They walked toward the ambulance. Mary stood on the porch, watching them.

You shouldn’t have done that, Mareee!” Carol screamed at her. Then she disappeared in the back of the ambulance.

* * *

The next morning, Mary met her father for lunch at an Italian restaurant on Newbury Street. There were red and white checkers on the tablecloth and opera music played on a radio. They sat outside, but it was a bit chilly. Summer was ending. He leaned over the table, so close to her, his glasses slightly fogged from breathing too hard. His face looked crepey; he was getting old. Why had she never noticed this before?

“It’s so good to see you,” he said, reaching his hands out to grab hers. She pulled her hands away and watched her father’s face fall.

“What happened to your hand?”

“Nothing.”

“You look so beautiful, Mary.” He put a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged him off.

“What do you want from me?” she said, but it wasn’t really a question.

“Want from you?”

“Yeah.”

“I just want to see you, Mary. You’re my daughter. I don’t want anything from you!”

The look on his face! The pain! And it was all because of her. Mary got up and walked to the door.

“Mary? Mary!” he called after her.

* * *

That night, Larissa and Mary had a party at their apartment. Larissa bought a half keg and bottles of whiskey and vodka, and laid out colorful plastic cups. She called everyone she knew. Mary did nothing, except help her carry stuff up the stairs and then helped her arrange things; she pushed the kitchen table against the wall, as Larissa pointed her finger at her, telling her to do it.

“And I’d like you to chip in for the booze.”

“Of course,” said Mary.

Larissa stood there, looking thoughtful, one hand on her now well-defined hip. She’d lost so much weight that summer that all her adolescent pudginess was gone. Her dark hair, once short and framing her face, now hung in thick long curls around her shoulders. Her face had cheekbones that stuck out angularly and her breasts curved low on her chest, like a woman much older than 19. She was mesmerizing. Beautiful. Mary stared at her.

Mary set up the keg and pumped and pumped it. She began drinking before people arrived. She kept drinking once they did arrive. In fact, she stayed standing, next to the keg, drinking, until the keg was empty. She served other people, who came and went. The music was loud. The Velvet Underground, Joy Division, David Bowie. It bothered her. Why had she thought this crap more sophisticated than Van Halen? Why had she been so impressed? She longed for her room at home, with its bland furniture and posters of horses. She longed for the quiet of her small town. Stumbling, she went into her back room to lie down. People were sitting on her bed, talking. Other kids sat on the floor, their legs bent up so they could fit in the tiny space. She fell on the bed and passed out.

The next morning, the apartment was a mess. She knew she had to clean it. Larissa would tell her to. She thought if she cleaned up before Larissa woke that it would make her happy. Her head hurt and her mouth tasted awful. While collecting cups filled with the dregs of beer and cigarette ashes, she felt bile rise in her throat. She went to the bathroom and threw up. When she came out, Larissa was standing there, wearing a dark-green nightgown that went down to her ankles.

“Are you OK?” she asked, but her voice was unfriendly.

“I got sick.”

“I can see.”

“I’ve been cleaning up after the party. The smell of stale beer and cigarettes made me ill.”

“I think it was all the beer you drank. You drank half of that keg yourself. Now, can I get in there?”

“Yeah.”

* * *

After Mary had finished cleaning the apartment, she took a hot shower. With a towel wrapped around her, she headed back to her room.

“I need to talk to you,” Larissa said. She was sitting on the purple couch, smoking. The smell of the smoke made Mary’s heart pound.

“OK.” Mary stood there.

“Go get dressed. Don’t just stand there in your towel.”

Mary headed into her room and shut the door. Larissa found her repulsive. She could tell. Funny how that was, how Larissa’s body excited her, moved her, really. And she had the exact opposite effect on Larissa. She didn’t look at herself as she threw on jeans and a T-shirt.

“That was quick,” Larissa said and it sounded like an insult. “Listen, you have to move out. Clay is moving in on September 8th.”

“What?”

“You have two weeks,” she said and blew a perfect smoke ring.

“Where will I go?”

Larissa laughed. “That’s your problem, honey. You know, you never do anything. You’re so … so passive. This will be good for you. Force you to take some responsibility for your life.”

“But the plan was to live here for the next school year—”

“The plan changed,” Larissa interjected. “And you aren’t on the lease, anyway.”

“Why don’t you like me?”

There was a pause, as if Larissa were really thinking about this question. Then she said, “What’s there to like?”

“What did you ever like about me?”

“I don’t know if I ever did.”

“Then you’re just as fucked up as I am.”

“I doubt that,” she said, dryly.

You don’t know me,” Mary said, and her voice was different than she’d ever heard it before. She lifted her bloody knuckles at Larissa. “You don’t know the half of me.

She ran out of the apartment, down the smelly stairs, out onto the street.

On Harvard Avenue, the traffic was light. It was 2 o’clock on a Sunday. She looked wildly back and forth. She saw no one she knew. Somehow, this comforted her. Then she thought, what did she care, if she saw someone she knew? What did it matter what anyone thought of her? She turned up Commonwealth Avenue and started walking toward Cleveland Circle, toward Cleveland Circle House. “You shouldn’t have done that, Mareee!” Where would she go now? She kept walking until she came to a bus stop. There, she stopped and sat down. A bus came, and she got on it. It drove up the hill, toward Cleveland Circle. There was the house. She saw the smokers smoking on the porch. She was supposed to work the next day. And it was a group meeting day, too. But she wouldn’t go to work tomorrow. No, she’d never go back there. The bus kept going, and Mary panicked. At the next stop, she got off. She ran to a pay phone.

Her mother answered the phone. “Yes, I’ll accept the charges,” her mother said, her voice familiarly stiff with barely suppressed rage.

“Mom. Is Dad back yet? Is he there? I need him …”

“No. He’s there visiting you. Where are you? Why in God’s name are you calling collect? Mary? Mary! Are you there!?”

Mary hung up. Here was a woman who hated Mary for some power she perceived Mary to have. Just like Larissa hated her for her lack of it. Which was the truth? What did it matter?

She’d try calling the hotel. Maybe he hadn’t left yet. He’d forgive her—he loved her. Yes, he did.



This story first appeared in Fiction. It also appears in the author’s collection Inside Madeleine (Soho Press, 2014).


Paula Bomer’s Comments

I worked in halfway houses for the mentally ill when I was an undergraduate at Boston University and studying psychology. I wanted to write about that time, but the subject matter needed to be framed in the larger context of a life, in my mind. So that’s what I did.


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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 45 | Spring 2015