blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

What If

I slept over at Marilyn’s house, eleven years old, in the room above the garage where there were icy drafts from the November winds and old bottles full of cigarette butts and it smelled like gasoline and mothballs because that’s where they kept the wedding clothes that no one would ever want again. But at least her brothers didn’t try to break in there, standing in the hallway and slamming their fists on the door of her room, over and over again until we just opened it so Marilyn wouldn’t get in trouble when it broke right off its frame, which it did once the year after, the time Eddy went to jail and Marilyn didn’t come to school for a while. But here they left us alone, that’s how bad of a place it was. Still it was the best place in her house and damn if it wasn’t better than mine.

It was after her parents had drunk themselves to sleep and we snuck past their bodies on the couch, sprawled over oily fabric. We drank their wine, warm from the tumblers on the coffee table. On TV was an old movie in black-and-white just when an astronaut had returned from space in his rocket. He’d been up in space for a long time, where you’d think no one could have gotten to him, but he wasn’t the same. A woman was there when the ship landed and she ran to him to take off his helmet and she screamed at what was under there and we ran out of the room then and we never saw what made her scream, but I dreamt about it that night and still do. Sometimes I dream that he didn’t mind what happened to him, even if she did.

We ran back to the bed we’d made on the floor with the quilts from her room. It was cold and the floor was hard, but we wrapped ourselves in all Marilyn’s sweaters, and we lay together, close. We started the game.

“What if,” she said. “What if you woke up tomorrow and you were in a dungeon? And there were men there?” But I didn’t answer. We never did. You weren’t supposed to answer the questions.

“And what if,” I said. “What if they had on masks?” But she didn’t answer.

“What if they ripped off your clothes?” she said.

“What if they slapped you hard?” I said

“What if they tied you up?” she said.

“What if you screamed?”

“What if you screamed, but no one could hear you?” she said.

I didn’t say anything. She nudged me.

But I was thinking about the astronaut’s dark helmet, and what the woman saw when she lifted it from his face, the thing that made her scream, the thing he brought back with him. Had she loved him? Could she still?

“It’s your turn,” she said.

“What if . . . ,” I said. “What if I could hear you?”

She blinked. I hadn’t answered the question, but we both knew I had broken the rules.

“What if I came for you?” I said. But the game was over.

We were hot, so we took off the sweaters, all the way down to skin, and we held each other so tight, her breath in my hair like fingers. Her face uncreased as she sank into sleep, her chest moving fast at first, then deep and slow, like our tiny rocket had finally escaped the pull of Earth’s thick gravity, shut off the engines and now floated through the galaxy, stars glimmering and pulsing all around, where no one can get to us, not knowing what we’ll become if we ever come back, our home planet growing distant, still calling after us:

what if

what if

what if.  

return to top