by Jane Sussman
She has begun to go to the gym twice a day, once in the morning, once in the evening. She will run fast, moving up the speed every five minutes, until it is going at nine and she can barely breathe. Roxy’s body has transformed in the last year; no more arm fat or slack ass, she is all sinew. Her shoulders have ridges, indents. The weight room is emptier in the morning and she can stand in front of the mirror watching her triceps, her deltoids.
Roxy gets lost on the way to her aunt’s, and by the time she finds the right street she knows she will have to turn around pretty soon.
Her father had warned her, so Roxy is not wholly surprised at the mess of the house, the smell.
“Lenore,” she hugs her, “You need to get a cleaning service in here.” Her aunt holds on to her, only coming up to her shoulders, squeezing her around the waist. She looks up at her. They sit down on the couch, Lenore lighting a cigarette. She apologizes. “Don’t,” Roxy tells her, “It’s fine.”
“You’d think I’d know better after watching Maggie but it’s an addiction.” Roxy waves it away.
“You look so thin,” Lenore says.
“I’ve been working out,” says Roxy.
“Jesus, the fits you threw just to get out of a soccer game.” Lenore laughs. “Has your dad spoken to Rog?”
Roxy shakes her head.
“Of course,” Lenore says. “He wants everyone in the family to think… He called last night and I didn’t answer.”
“That’s good you’re being strong,” says Roxy.
“He doesn’t even feel guilty,” Lenore tells her. “And you know why?”
Lenore looks at her nailbeds, picks skin off with her teeth.
“Because we don’t have children,” she says. “That makes it ok.”
“That’s so wrong,” Roxy tells her.
“Have you talked to your grandparents?” Lenore says.
Roxy shakes her head.
“I just want to know if everyone thinks it’s my fault, I don’t know if,” Lenore takes a few deep breaths, laughs at herself in a few coughs. “I just don’t know if they believe he’s shit or if they’re just saying he’s shit, you know?”
“I haven’t really talked to them about it,” Roxy says.
Lenore leans back against the couch, closing her eyes. She reaches around next to her blindly for her cigarettes but doesn’t find them.
“This fucking year,” Lenore says.
“I know,” Roxy says.
Lenore sits up straight, “Christ. Is this distracting or a downer?”
“Both,” Roxy says. “I’m kind of past needing distraction.”
“You’re ok,” Lenore asks.
“Yeah,” Roxy says. “Doing fine.”
“I don’t really have time for that this year.”
“What about classes?” Lenore asks.
“I’m going to have to leave soon,” Roxy tells her later. “I should get to at least the second half of this class.”
“It’d be so much fucking easier if I were in school right now,” Lenore laughs. “School or something.”
She calls her grandparents from the car. They always talk on the phone together, two phones in the kitchen, one on each nightstand next to their beds. They sleep in two beds pushed together, like girls on a sleepover.
“Howie,” her grandmother calls out. She hears him pick up the other end.
“It’s Roxy,” her grandmother tells him.
“Roxy,” he says.
“Hi Poppy,” she says.
“She just came from Lenore’s,” her grandmother says.
“What were you doing there?” he asks.
“Just a visit. Dad suggested it,” she tells them.
“It’s nice to do that,” her grandmother says.
“Then what was the heavy breathing for,” says her grandfather.
“How does she seem?” her grandmother asks.
“A little frenetic,” Roxy says.
“He called her last night you know,” her grandfather tells her.
“Drunk,” her grandmother says.
“He was at the bimbo’s apartment.”
Roxy’s phone beeps and she looks down at it; low battery.
“What a year,” her grandmother says.
“I’m going to sign off,” her grandfather says.
“Love you, Poppy,” Roxy says. He hangs up.
“You know, he doesn’t want to make Seder this year,” her grandmother tells her.
She gets on the treadmill, starts out steady. Turns the incline up. She imagines herself running up a mountain right now. She could outrun anyone. Her knees don’t even ache, not with this much adrenaline. They almost buckle when she gets off though. Her music was too loud because now her ears hurt and she takes out the headphones. As soon as they are off, a guy approaches her.
“You were going so high today,” he says.
Eyes closed, she leans against the railing of the treadmill. She thinks her breathing must sound like an animal’s.
“I don’t know how you can stay on the machine every day.” He squats next to her. She shrugs, head against her arms. “Do you ever run outside?”
“Nope,” she says.
“Last year I did that, ran outside a lot, well actually I started two years ago, but last year I ran the marathon. Which was because I was running outside. That’s why I mean I ran the marathon.”
“You’re limping,” he says as she begins to move toward the mats. She turns to him, and pantomimes a pout. When he sits next to her, she can see the outline of his dick against his thigh covered by the thin, red mesh shorts.
“I was just coming in and saw you from over there,” he says. “I think I’ve been going to the gym more this year.”
She looks at him. “Oh yeah?”
“I always catch you here,” he says. “I mean, when I’m here.” She thinks about pushing him into the weight room and the way his penis would feel as she slid her hand down it from outside of his shorts.
A weekend night, she clenches her fists as someone tries to squeeze in next to her. Owen bends down to talk to a girl. She is fat, no that’s not right, she is normal. He would think she was fat, though. He looks up; he wanted her to see this. She squeezes her way back to their booth. Lucy slides over, and she slides into the booth. They look at Owen, now across the bar talking to a different semi-unattractive girl.
“Just so you know, Derek’s over there too.” They stare at Derek, reaching for a drink, throwing an arm around a friend. Lucy pulls Roxy behind her toward the group, a handful of boys, one or two girls.
Derek moves closer to her, to talk about something, a class, a mutual friend, and she feels the heat from him. She wonders what Derek would do if she were to put her hands or nose or lips against the back of his neck, just to feel some heat.
“Where’d Luc go to?” Derek turns his head, whips it back immediately. They lean out and there, back in the booth, Lucy and Jeff kiss quickly. Derek looks back at Roxy and she at him. They laugh, he doesn’t look away from her. Roxy takes a sip, turns it into a gulp and then downs it.
“A double just means more tonic here.” She stands, bumping into someone. “What a nightmare,” she says. Derek nods. Someone comes up behind her, slides a hand from between her shoulder blades down to her back.
“You haven’t been here in awhile,” Owen says.
She turns, they don’t break eye contact, he puts his hand on her waist, pulls her in. She can feel Derek move away from behind her, sees him walk around them, back to the boys.
Owen walks past her, and she follows Owen out. She finds matches when they get home. She can hear him peeing in the bathroom, wishes he would have turned on the water so she didn’t have to hear.
Owen takes his shirt off, sits down, hard, on the bed. “Come here Rox,” he says. She doesn’t immediately, and his self-consciousness is obvious.
“Get over here,” he says. She shakes her head, pulls her shirt off. A purple bra against white skin, and he doesn’t seem to notice the difference. She knows then that he isn’t even looking at her, because if he were paying attention, he would see that her body has changed. He doesn’t notice her breasts, small now, strange and small. As she walks over, as he kisses her stomach, unzips her jean, she wonders if maybe the difference is only apparent to her and to Lucy. He kisses her ear, licking it, Rox, he groans. So she gets on top of him, hair falling around their faces. She wonders why she can’t feel the heat that must be coming from his body.
She gets into the shower immediately, turning the water on so hot her skin could melt down the drain. She leans back against the wall, warm for the first time that day. Shaking a little, mainly in reaction to the heat. She thinks of her mother, asking them to put their hands on her, touch me, she told them. Her hands on her mother’s stomach, distended with fluid, the cancer kid whose skin Roxy imagines burning slowly away, bubbling from the radioactive medicine, bleeting as it died. Roxy knows she is not dying, that this is an imaginary illness, a strange sickness that has become a part of her and not the dying of her mother. When she gets out she’ll order a pizza, put something inside of her tonight that will stick.
Lucy comes downstairs as soon as she hears Roxy on the phone for pizza.
“I heard him come in,” Lucy says.
She is accusing her, hoping for a denial, an explanation, but Roxy shrugs, so what? Roxy looks at her phone, at the time.
“He’s just so not worthy,” Lucy says. Roxy rolls her eyes. “Alright, fine, you just…”
Lucy looks for the words, “You just need to take better care of yourself. “
“This won’t do anything to me.”
“Why not?” Lucy asks but there is no answer. “Want the blanket? You look freezing.”
“We are always running out of hot water,” Roxy says. Lucy brings the blanket over, sits next to her. They get under it, toes touching.
“Still cold?” Lucy turns toward her, throws an arm over her, draws her in.
“Roxy,” Lucy sighs.
Roxy’s cell phone rings, the pizza. She rolls over to get off the couch, out of the room. She goes out onto the porch, money in one hand. As the deliveryman turns around, she opens the box of pizza. Steam rises into the air and she lowers her face, breathing it in.
Lenore calls her in the morning, earlier than Roxy would have assumed Lenore would be up.
“What are you doing today?” Lenore asks.
“Class, maybe the gym,” Roxy says.
“Do you have time for a nice lunch?” Lenore says, “I know when I was in college I always loved when some visitor would take me out for a nice lunch.”
“Sure,” Roxy says. “That sounds nice.”
Lenore names a French bistro, a few blocks away from campus and they meet there at noon.
“This place is great, we can eat outside,” she says to Roxy. Lenore orders a bottle of white wine, a special treat she says, and stares at it as it’s being poured.
“You have no idea how nice it feels to get out of the house,” Lenore tells her.
“I’m sure,” Roxy says.
The food comes; a salad for Roxy, a croque monsieur for Lenore. Lenore rests her cigarette in the ashtray and moves to fill Roxy’s glass of wine. “You drink so slowly,” she says to her.
She fills hers and puts down the bottle, turns her face to the sun.
“You know what’s corny?” she says to Roxy. “I always think of your mom on these days. Or, days that feel like this outside. That’s not it. Beautiful days just make me miss things now. Rog. Your mom. My brother.”
Lenore stays like that for a few minutes, shivers, sips her wine.
“That woman called me last night, told me I was ruining her relationship,” Lenore tells her.
“You’re kidding me,” Roxy says.
“Can you believe that?”
“She must be crazy.”
“It feels like I’m talking to Maggie with you,” she tells her.
Roxy walks her back to her car, and Lenore leans against it.
“I remember college with your mother,” she says, “Jesus it could have been last week. Going on dates, tanning on the roof, topless. She managed such good grades, though.
“So you’re going to class now?”
“The Soviet Union one,” she tells her.
“Jesus. Think I’d like it?”
Roxy shrugs, but takes her to class anyway. They sit in the back, Roxy taking notes, Lenore looking out the window. The class is small, and Roxy knows that the professor has noticed Lenore.
“Is this your sister?” he says on the way out, turning to Lenore.
“No, just her old maid aunt,” Lenore smiles, pulling Roxy close.
As they walk out, Lenore looks at her. “Don’t be so embarrassed,” she says. Roxy doesn’t respond.
“Are you mad at me?” Lenore asks. Roxy shakes her head.
She runs hard that evening, almost two hours. She knows she’ll have to do something else tomorrow, maybe swim, because her knees can’t take this much. She’ll ice them when she’s home, take some Advil, it’ll be ok. He comes up behind her while she’s waiting for the water fountain.
“What got into you today?” he says.
“Nothing,” she says.
“C’mon,” he says. She shakes her head, smiles, not realizing how tired she was.
She ices, she takes three Advil, but in the morning her knees are sore. Walk it off, she tells herself, shake it off. They’re just stiff. She gets a text from Lenore, What class is today?
She doesn’t respond, and Lenore calls her.
“Want a bagel?” she asks.
“I’ll get my own breakfast,” Roxy says.
“Oh Rox I need to come meet you today,” Lenore says, “Rog has been totally incommunicado. I fear the worst.”
“What could be worse?” Roxy asks.
“Nothing,” Lenore says, “I mean, the worst is when there’s nothing.” Roxy can hear her beginning to cry.
“Want to bring over the bagel?” Roxy asks.
“Do you have cream cheese?” Lenore asks.
Her father calls her.
“Just checkin in,” he says.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi,” he says. They are quiet, she leans her head against her refrigerator and closes her eyes.
“Daddy my knees hurt from running,” she says.
“You gotta be careful with those joints, they’re with you for life,” he says. Words like that make them uncomfortable around each other.
“So,” Roxy says.
“Lenore says you’ve been so sweet with her,” he says.
“She’s driving me nuts.”
“Have some compassion, sweetheart,” he tells her. She opens her eyes, hooks the phone against her ear. Lenore buzzes up and comes in, bag of bagels in hand. She plops down onto the couch, holding out the bagels for Roxy to take them.
“Lenore just walked in,” she says. Lenore waves in her direction.
“Alright,” he says, “Call me later.”
“Love you.” She presses the phone against her shoulder while she opens the fridge, pulls out her ice packs. Lenore walks next to her, takes the phone from her ear and talks into it, “Hello?”
“Was that Sam?” Roxy nods, slaps the ice packs over her knees.
“Ah Roxy,” she starts in. “This place is nice.
“I didn’t tell you this because I didn’t want you to think I was gross but we slept together a few nights ago,” Lenore tells her.
“Do you think I’m a bad woman?” Lenore asks.
“Of course not,” Roxy says. For a moment, she imagines Lenore in bed, smoking cigarettes, chatting with a nude Roger.
“You know how that is, when you just want them and you’re like no it’s so weak but it’s like there’s still so much chemistry,” Lenore asks.
Roxy shrugs, “I can imagine,” she says.
“Are you still…?” Lenore asks, trailing off.
Roxy promises Lenore she can accompany her to class later. She ices for an hour and limps to the gym. She gets on the bike but it’s not running and she’s off soon, lifting weights, watching herself in the mirror. She can see the swelling in her knees.
She goes straight to class from the gym; she didn’t sweat enough to change clothes. She waits outside. Lenore is late. She calls her cell, no answer. When she gives up and goes inside, there’s Lenore. She stands at the front of the room, talking to her professor.
Roxy turns back around, walking out of the building. She begins to run down to the river, past the museum.
Her knees ache and then the pain is sharp, too sharp to keep running. She slides down on to the grass next to the runner’s pathway, pulling her knees up to her chest.
Jane E. Sussman lives in Los Angeles, where she writes fiction for television, the screen, and the web. Her writing influences include Hemingway, Didion, Rushdie, and Chandler, as well as the gothic literature of the nineteenth century, Keats, and Milton. She can be followed on twitter and instagram @janeesussman.