THE OUTLINE OF EMPTY SPACES
by Angelique Stevens
I discovered a near-limitless capacity for patience on my parents’ back porch, hiding out, eating Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and reading Richie Rich comics. I was skipping school, biding my time until the end of the afternoon when I could pretend to come home. That first morning, I had slunk down behind an old green aluminum chair and sat in an upright fetal position, knees to chest, arms swaddling legs. I counted the boards on the floor, twenty-five. The rails along the side, forty-eight, and 360 holes in between the crisscross side rail, 250 yellow leaves on the porch, 423 reds, five points in this yellow leaf, eight in that red leaf. I counted my fingers and my toes and every letter in the alphabet, and then, when that was done, I made up a new game. I spelled out every letter:, A, AY, B, BEE, C, SEA. I spelled my name: Ay, En, Gee, El, Eye, Cue, You, Eee. I spelled out whole sentences. “Angie is skipping school today.” “School sucks.” It wasn’t long before I was bored.
I had sprained an ankle a week earlier playing with my sister, Gina. The doctor had prescribed a few days’ rest, which turned into a week out of school. Then, the night before I was supposed to go back, I asked Dad for a letter that would explain my absence. He never gave it to me; he was too drunk to remember. When I left the house the next morning, my anxiety over not having the letter grew with each hesitant step I took.
My feet skipped between the yellows and reds of mid-October leaves—should I even go to school? I could just stay home one more day, ask Dad again for a letter that night, and everything would be okay. But what would I tell him? I could say I tripped and fell, hurt my leg again, or maybe I could say I was feeling kind of feverish and came home sick. He would never believe that.
By the time I walked through the school’s entrance, the homeroom bell was already ringing. I should have picked up my pace, but my family had moved to the neighborhood recently, and I felt like a stranger still. I stopped in a corner, the gray of my shirt blending into the gray of the wall until I was just a silhouette of myself—a thin line of lead-gray traced upon bricks. I imagined that moment when you open the classroom door and all the third graders turned toward you wondering where you’ve been and why you’re late and why you never talk to anyone and why your clothes are ripped and you smell like cigarettes. Then, I snuck into the bathroom and parked myself inside a stall.
Twenty minutes later, when the bell rang again, I retraced my steps out of the building and into daylight. I might have been okay if I had just gone into my class, said I didn’t have a note, and sat down. Or maybe I didn’t even need a note. Maybe no one had noticed my absence. But it was too late; I had passed the moment of turning back.
In the daylight I was free. There was none of Dad’s late-night staggering up the stairs or Mom’s paranoid mania. There was only me, full and flesh and whole. I was substance and skin against the backdrop of the city’s swoosh of cars, white cement sidewalk and bark of oak.
I walked to the park and sat on the swing, kicked leaves, traced my name in the sand, Ang, Angie, Angelique, all the ways I knew myself. Then I left. I knew I was too young and it was too early in the day to be seen in the park. Dad always joked about truant officers. I couldn’t be sure if they were real, so I tried to force my flesh back into that silhouette, dark against the shadows of the city.
I fantasized about where I might go. Maybe I could grow wings and fly to California, sun myself on a private beach like a movie star, one knee up, one down, my long hair splayed on a towel. Or I could drive a fancy Jeep into the Colorado mountains, the way grown-up women did in the movies. I’d sit at the bar of a ski lodge, finger the lip of a sherry glass, pick it up so the ice would clink when I pressed it against my lips. I was so caught up in my dream I hadn’t realized my body took me where it knew to go.
I had unintentionally traced my steps back home. We lived in a duplex. My mother wouldn’t see me come around to the back. She would have been half-lying, half-sitting on the couch, dipping her toast into her coffee and alternating drags of her Raleigh cigarette with bites of toast—crumbs rolling down her chest to the cigarette-burned couch and onto the floor. She’d watch game shows until the afternoon when she would take her evening dose of Thorazine and sleep until dinner. She would never go out the back door to the yard. So I chanced it, steeled myself against the shadows and found a spot behind that green chair on the back porch.
By the time I had finished counting and spelling, it was after lunch and I was hungry. I realized I still had the dollar Dad had given me for the cafeteria, so I left the porch and walked to the corner store. Wilson Farms only had four short aisles, but they were filled with possibilities. I scanned the shelves deciding what combination of food I could get, a soda and a candy bar or a Twinkie and milk. Then I saw the toy section. There were water guns, three for a dollar, blue, yellow, and red. There were toy caps, none of which I could buy with the money I had. I considered a plastic handheld maze game. I could pass time for hours rolling that little silver ball along winding turns and broken gaps and dead ends just to get through the labyrinth. But I didn’t have enough money to buy that and food, too. I found the comic book section. Richie Rich was only thirty cents. I picked it up and grabbed a double Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup on the way to the checkout.
Back on the porch, I made a fresh start. Only two more hours until school ended and I could pretend to walk home. If I was deliberate, I could fill my time reading Richie Rich and eating the Reese’s, one hour per cup. I took one of the peanut butter rounds out of the package and held it between my thumb and forefinger, softening the cold chocolate, making it pliable, and testing my own patience. I moved my fingers around the center, being careful not to touch the hard outer ridge. Finally, it cracked in my hand and a perfect little circle of soft peanut butter and chocolate came out of the center, leaving the ridged circle intact. I ate it slowly, deliberately around the edges, savoring every taste of peanut butter, imagining each tiny little morsel of chocolate pass through my teeth and land on my tongue. I forced myself not to chew it but instead let it melt until it dissolved. When that was finished, I nibbled the outside circle, one ridge at a time. That took up the better part of an hour. I still had the second piece to go.
While I ate, I read Richie Rich from the top left corner to the bottom right corner of each page. I slowed my pace, stopped time so that the reading and the eating would last until school ended. One small bite corresponded to one small detail. Methodically, I studied every mark on every page until it was memorized. The way both c’s in Richie Rich’s name were made to look like cents symbols. The way the i’s were dotted with diamonds. I wanted the i in Angelique to be dotted with a diamond. I wanted my S to be crossed with two lines so it could become a dollar sign.
Near the Harvey Comics logo, in the top left corner of the cover, there was always a miniature image of Richie Rich. He stood near a money vault or held up a bank over his head Superman style or wore wings made of dollars. I loved the sensory opulence of it all. I imagined myself with cash wings rising above the back porch and the shadows, above the cigarette-burned carpets and hand-me-down clothes, beyond Mom’s paranoid rages and Dad’s late-night binges. I slowed my imaginings—dreamed up one image at a time until I saw myself floating in Wonder Woman pose over a world of extravagance and luxury that looked nothing like the one I had come from.
When that first day ended and I pretended to come home, no one knew that I had skipped. I could keep doing it. The next day, I went straight to Wilson Farms for another comic book and some peanut butter cups. Some days I took the long way home, other days it was too cold and rainy to sit outside. One wet morning, I peeked in the living room window and saw Mom sleeping, so I creaked open the front door. If I could get upstairs without her seeing me, I could wait out the day in the warmth of my room. Mom was sleeping on the couch, cigarette smoke hanging in the air and Bob Barker chatting with a new contestant on The Price is Right.
I closed the door and pretended I was a ninja warrior on a secret mission. One step, my right toe touched the floor, then the ball of my foot, one joint at a time until my heel was flat. I tested the next step for noise, then more weight and the whole of my left foot. Then, my right toe touched the first stair. I counted seconds between movements, one one thousand, two one thousand. I breathed in, three one thousand, four one thousand. I took another step, five one thousand, six one thousand. I was all stealth. My chest expanded, seven one thousand. I was a silhouette rising, eight one thousand, nine one thousand. Then I breathed out. Let the air go, made myself invisible. I counted the number of floorboards as I moved; five on this step, seven on that step.
All along I watched my mother’s eyes. I listened to her breathing. I spelled the letters of her name in my head: Sea, Ay, Are, Oh, El, Eee. I breathed in. I spelled diamond: Dee, Eye, Ay, Em, Oh, En, Dee. I breathed out. On the top landing, I turned the corner and reached my room, where I forced my flesh into a corner of my closet and opened the Richie Rich. I could wait all day in that spot, my patience had become superhuman.
One day I came home from a fake day of classes and Dad was home early, waiting for me on the couch.
“Where’ve you been, Angie?” His Boston accent still thick after 40 years in New York. He took a long drag of his cigarette.
“The school called and said you haven’t been there in at least two weeks.”
“I was afraid.”
He put his cigarette out and opened the jar of Noxzema. The shirt of his blue lot man’s uniform hung loose and wrinkled at the waist. The dark cracks in his calloused hands were caked black even after washing. He rubbed the Noxzema on his hands. Mom was in the kitchen getting dinner ready.
“You were supposed to give me a note.”
“You skipped school because you didn’t have a note? I’ll give you a note, and then you will march your ass right into the principal’s office tomorrow morning.” He pointed his arthritic finger up the stairs, and I sulked off to my room.
Upstairs, I took off my shoes and sat on the bed. Beyond my window, the wind had picked up the leaves and made them spiral. I pulled the blankets up and took out an old issue of Richie Rich from my nightstand. On the cover, Richie was in bed wrapped in a green quilt, a fluffy white pillow leaned against a headboard of gold. From his bedroom window, the morning sun’s rays angled down onto his face. The robot arm of his alarm clock tapped him gently on his shoulder to wake him, the words singing from the radio, “Good morning, Richie.”
I traced my finger over each image on the front page, starting in the top left corner and moving to the book’s title. I stopped at the diamonds over each “i,” pretending I could feel the smooth sides, the edges and lines as I turned each diamond over in my fingers. I touched the swirls on the bed’s headboard, wishing I had a crayon to fill in the outline of empty spaces with another color—silver maybe. I traced the lines of the angled rays of the yellow sun above the alarm clock and out the window. Then I imagined myself sliding out of the window on the sunrays and counting the trees as I flew above them with dollar wings, two pine trees in the back yard, two maples in front. Four honey locusts on the street and on and on into the sun.
Angelique Stevens’ nonfiction can be found in The Chattahoochee Review, Cleaver (Issue 8, Issue 11, and in Life as Activism), Shark Reef, and a number of anthologies. Her essay “Exposure” won silver in the Solas Award for Best Women’s Travel Writing 2013, and her experimental essay “Spiral” was published in the anthology Friend Follow, Text, which was nominated by Foreward Review for Best Anthology of the Year. She teaches creative writing and genocide literature in upstate New York, and she is a founding member of Straw Mat Writers, with whom she coauthored the collaborative plays FourPlay for the 2014 and Shitty Lives for the 2015 First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festivals. She holds an MFA from Bennington College, and she finds her inspiration in wandering—being in places that push the boundaries of comfort, experience, knowledge, and hunger. She is currently writing a travel memoir about her trip to South Sudan and her experiences growing up in New York State.
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