Ticket to Oblivion

by Ellen O’Leary

THE HEEL-TOE RHYTHM hypnotized me and now I’m all but in New Jersey. Pleasant Plains by way of Great Kills strikes a little on the nose. Headlights strobe, the mechanical whir swells and wanes and swells again. I lean into the sharp sting of a blister being frictioned into existence. My round-the-block headclear has taken me two hours away. I need to be a body on a train, returning.

Squid ink sky. Air so cold it face-tightens. Waiting (Irresponsible). Waiting (Negligent). Waiting (Reckless). I inflate my ribs round and hold a moment, just to feel the full. Flickering light on grimy tiles. Fluorescence is an evil thing. I had no fluoride in my water as a kid, got cavities galore. 

‘Psss!’ from up the aisle. Gumball eyes are fixed on me. He flicks a switchblade. Teases the edge. Thumb-pad swivels at the point. I smile, forced. Very nice, dear.

I scroll ‘hellos’ and ‘how are things?’ Friend messages. Guilt-awkward. I didn’t reply. I don’t reply. I read a story. The famed writer stole the young man’s death from the papers. His family sued, felt his real-life demise (eleven beers, a garbage chute) undignified enough. It’s quicker than most to go that way. Kinder, though at a cost.

Disembarking, I play at confidence. All fine, I stay unpunctured.

Nearly home and it’s barely midnight. Should’ve been back, should’ve never left, but between appointments and inanities, brief freedoms are my rare drug. Reticence curdling, babyish and whining, ‘just five more minutes!’

And so: a drink, I think, before I drop. The door to the lone bar resistant, heavy—are you sure? Beer brands neon against my eyelids as I blink, scanning for the cheapest draft. I’ve hardly sat when Simon calls my name. I said we wouldn’t again, but here I am in his bed. His toes feel cold, my socks stay on. Shirt, too. He objects. 

Ever since I realized my mother’s tits probably used to look a lot like mine, I’ve felt peculiar.

‘I have to go,’ I say, after.

‘Stay,’ Simon says.

I hate to lose a game. 

The sound of his shimmy deeper into blankets. A niceness spreads, a warm and weary kind of giddy. And Dad’s sleep is prescribed. Sound. Consistent. I slip under, too, following, weighted by the blankets, limbs, sunk costs.

It’s five and there are birds. I place Simon’s arm under the blue plaid comforter required, by law, in male bedrooms. I walk to the window, the large bay that overlooks the backyard with its shed and its stones and its intermittent green that tries its best to be grass. I imagine me, standing in the yard, looking up at me, standing in the window. Belly curves to dark and the ridge of my spine, a guidepost for hands, this way up, this way down, either way’ll do. 

My clothes are folded. Simon’s work while I tongued his toothbrush last night. He’s put my twisted unders right on top. White crust on polyester blend.

The walk home, slumping. Dad scolding child-me, ‘Don’t push your luck, pal.’ That ‘pal’ like punctuation, menacing. As if to say, ‘I know you, familiar, and you are right on the cusp of trou-ou-ble.’

Home. I observe it from the outside, a wistful visitor. The kitchen light is on, inviting from the still-dark street. Thwunk my boots in the mudroom closet, back wall scuffmarked black.

Andy in his scrubs is peeling hard-boiled eggs into a ceramic bowl. Twelve minutes into his shift and active-tasked already. He draws a yolky digit to his lips and head-tilts toward Dad’s room. A teacher told me once that eggs were a chicken’s period. Demented, what people can plant in your head, apparently forever, without permission.

‘Just ran out for milk,’ I whisper. Andy nods, ignores my empty hands. Not my business, his silence says. Most aides I interviewed were chatty helpful, quagmire of concern sticky sinking like molasses. Whereas: Andy is a helpful apparition. Still, of course, vampiric—each shift sucks lower the balance of a retirement account intended for golf lessons and grandchildren’s birthdays.

A sharpness around Achilles as suds dribble down. The conditioner I bought for its red-font price turns out to be shampoo. My twice-washed hair drips as I dress. I feel slightly sick and cervix mindful. Not the first time. I could ask a doctor. Could ask Andy. He’d answer, unwilling. His boundaries drawn with a practiced firm finger.

I dress myself in comfort casual, pulling from the bureau I reloaded with reluctance. Never thought I’d be back here half-living. This room still mine, purple walls pitted from tacked posters since removed. That trip to the hardware store at nine, kaleidoscopic strips for testing and Big League Chew in line. Dad and me with rollers up and old sheets on the floor. ‘I told you it’d be awfully bold.’

Ahead, a good day. I hope so hard it’s close to prayer.

Behind a glass display, I tong muffins for customers who say they ‘really shouldn’t.’ Swivel the screen; they wait until my back is turned to decide that 20% is too much and ‘custom tip’ is too much effort. They leave nothing.

The Emu reminds me of her lactose intolerance for the forty-sixth day in a row. 

‘I didn’t take my Lactaid,’ she squawks, front tooth smeared with pink so bright it’s violent.

I shake the carton of Silk to reassure.

She squints into her mug. ‘Doesn’t look like a heart.’

‘I’m a student of Gorky,’ I say.

Last night, Dad paused in the hallway to read my diploma. Shook his head at the designation of Art History. ‘What a waste.’ A specific type of painful, not knowing which of my father’s meannesses are really him. He’s the one who taught me how to hold a crayon, liked to rub his skies magenta.

An update from Andy: all quiet. Unlike when Dad walked to Key Foods in his pajamas and a red striped tie, calling for a dog that died before I was born.

The Wombat tells me there’s no more cream in the jug. 

I forgot to fill it.

Most of my days are not such a haze, most of the time I take the time. My friends like to tell the story of me, drunk, talking to a streetlamp with pizza grease flying from my lips. Today, speech won’t come. I feel confused though I’m not. Unless I am. Maybe this is how it begins, a dull falling away. 

When I shucked myself from Simon, supposedly for good, he wiped his nose on his arms, hand to elbow, returned to the start and made two more streaks. A typewriter working in flesh and snot.

I refill napkins and recall the switchblade, imagine a perpendicular jab through my tongue’s fat pink. As a teen, I applied to work at this same cafe. I nerved myself up and handed a carefully printed resume to the boss. In response: ‘Why don’t you go back to the beach, sweetheart?’ 

Beans pour like cereal into the grinder. Dad, at home, eating pancakes with Reddi-Wip. A thing he still knows: he loves sugar. Here pastries free and unlimited are an employee perk, in place of a livable wage. I prise some chocolate chunks from the cookie I’m calling breakfast and toss the crumbled rest.

From my memory, maybe, my mother, ‘I can’t live like this anymore!’ Or maybe me, every night. The fact regardless I am here alone, alone, alone. Dizzy from the jerking carnival ride: resentment, love, fear, pity, worry, frustration, tenderness, anger, exhaustion. Dread. There will be a moment when I wish for today. I am extra careful with my phrasing when I wish on eyelashes.

This is temporary, I intone as I scald my wrists rinsing. Temp-o-rare-y. I shake brown sugar packets. The city so close, but too far for now. A job away didn’t work. Rank dribble in boxer shorts cannot go unattended. Compensatory care from Andy, from anyone, made a math that didn’t logic out. So now, for now, I keep close, keep incoming and outgoing as level as I can, make nice with shift-sharers so they swap hours when Dad’s needs mean I need to.

Three Squids and an Octopus bang the glass door, talk over each other. The Octopus orders an espresso, thinks he’s an artist. 

My friends are off, trying. I am here, foaming too many milks.

I just thought his skin would be creped and spotted… But could be worse (will be). An uncle across the country sent a card and a check for five hundred last month ‘to help.’ I cried over the glitter butterfly’s insipid smile. Dad leaning over my shoulder asked if it was my birthday.

Simon says I left an earring behind and can claim it after noon.

‘You look tired today,’ says the Tortoise.

‘Late night,’ I tell him.

‘To be young,’ he says, with a shake of his loose-skinned skull.

I swipe zig-zags across the robin’s egg counter. As a toddler, I liked to sog my blanket and suck the drool back out again. My first tooth uprooted by Dad yanking wadded fabric from my mouth. He dabbed blood into my marigold shirt, offered me an ice cube in half-apology.

The door swings, my brain quiets. My arm quiets. I hand the wet rag to my replacement.

Outside it’s grey but blinding bright, and windy as a movie dream sequence. Bench-seated, waiting, I tug my lazy sock. Probe my heel’s red raw, remove the tender translucence, roll the epidermal aggregate. The epididymis is “highly convoluted.” Dad is probably napping. A kid in a Knicks jersey drags his scooter sideways through the grass. I am distressed by the flattened blades.

I could really use a teammate. 

My hands, bloated, smell of dishwater. Scrolling, again, and in midday light my friends taunt less, buoy more. Reply to one from weeks ago—it would be fun to see that concert in the city. The pricetag compounds with Andy factored in. But what point in saving, anyway? My future is unreal. Anyway, I’m told I’ve got to care for myself, empty wells and all that.

The splintered bench parts reluctantly with my linen pants as I rise to receive Simon’s spaghetti-arm lurch. He pulls, from his pocket, a sparkle. Cradles it in his puffed palm.

‘Thanks,’ I say and stab my lobe with gunked and stinking stem.

‘I’ll be around tonight. If you wanted,’ he says.

‘I can’t.’

Ding! goes the typewriter.

‘When I found it, I wondered if you left it behind on purpose.’

‘An excuse?’

‘I thought…maybe, yeah.’


Perhaps I am a bad person, because his freckles seem to pop as he pales and he nods and gives me a handshake. And my reaction is not: sad! But: a handshake?! Yes, maybe I am one of the Bad Things that I feel my life so full of. Proof: no matter how regularly I floss I always bleed. Further proof: when I discovered a boyfriend had lied about near-everything, I stayed three months. Final proof: I wish sometimes for deliverance, and I can’t think of what that means. 

Simon and I go our ways. ‘Wait!’ I could shout. He’d stop. He’d turn. My power is my favorite thing about him. He’d jog a bit, hope—a change of heart. I do not call out.

Last week Dad tapped me on the shoulder while I minced shallot.

‘You’re not special, so don’t go thinking you are,’ he said, then shuffled off.

So I am trying not to worry too much about being bad or good. I am trying not to parse statements from a man whose brain has morphed to sphagnum.

I thwunk my shoes. The closet rattles. It’s only lunchtime.

‘See you in a few days,’ I say to Andy and wish that weren’t the truth. ‘Thank you again, so much.’

A parting gift: Andy’s filled half the fridge with chopped crucifers. A saint. Do I think I am a martyr? Certainly I worship at an altar of antioxidants, as though maybe there’s still a glimmer. Something other than a one-way ticket to oblivion.

‘You’re home!’ Dad says, eagerness indecent.

I smile forcefully and hope it registers—my lack of dimples, my hair too dark to be called blonde. A hug, and right away I can feel the ghost he thinks I am. 

He hums along to music playing in what’s left of his mind. It was their song, then ours—two talls and one small dancing in the kitchen for a time. He doesn’t remember that she left, doesn’t remember that I’m grown. He takes my hand and holds her close. Being wanted and being needed are two very different things, but in this moment they seem the same. A cleansing and a summoning. Tender. Full of grace not meant for me.


Ellen O’Leary holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She lives in Oxford, England, where she is a DPhil candidate in the English faculty. She is currently working on her first novel. 


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