It is dusk, and my last night in the Grove. Mom is out buying a filet of salmon. I am sprawled on the bathroom floor, painting the last corner of the wall lemon yellow. It took most of the week to convince her to let me remove the peeling floral wallpaper, coated with years of speckled toothpaste spittle and misted layers of extra-strength hairspray.
I balance the paintbrush on the top of the can and stand up to survey the work, inhaling a big whiff of the fresh paint smell, enjoyable in the slight toxicity of its newness. The color is everything I hoped it to be—invigorating, warm, and bright. The room glows with revived energy, each object within it suddenly more precious and intriguing. Even the toilet's humble porcelain seems more animated, bursting with an amusing sort of optimism. Whether she will like it is another question. But I push away the thought, instead allowing myself to bask in the color's satisfying glow.
I pat around on the tile for the hammer, using it to gently pound the lid of the paint can down before making my way from the bathroom to the kitchen, where I rinse out the paint roll fuzz in the sink until the water runs clear. I grab a beer and take a few steps towards the kitchen table—where I have sat every night since my arrival—before changing my mind. It is late enough, I figure, that everyone will be asleep. Sweaty and slightly dizzy from the fumes, I could use the air. I exit from the side door, walking around to the front of the house.
The front porch is infested with termites, so I lower myself to sit on the concrete steps. I pinch the collar of my sweat-soaked T-shirt, billowing it across my sticky neck and flushed cheeks as I take the first sip of cold beer—a religious experience in the oppressive Southern humidity.
A screen door creaks and slams, and a male figure emerges from the left neighboring house. He sighs into the night and I bristle, suddenly overcome with dread. I have miraculously avoided any interactions for the extent of the week, aside from a trip to the hardware store for the paint, which to my relief went without incident.
I observe the man in my periphery. He is also drinking a beer, which he tips upwards to take a sip before noticing me on the stoop.
"Evenin'," he calls over, lifting his chin in greeting.
"Hello," I reply.
He takes a casual glance around before walking towards me across his lawn. My body tenses, and I attempt to relax it in my last few moments of solitude.
He extends his hand upon arrival.
He is wearing a plaid shirt tucked into a pair of faded bootcut jeans. The curved, dark brazen leather prongs of cowboy boots protrude out from underneath them. I reach up to shake his hand, attempting a respectfully firm yet gentle grip.
"You must be Patrice's kid?" he asks.
"Yeah, I'm Jackie," I say softly. "Nice to meet you."
Hyperconscious, I quickly run through the list of qualities that could possibly be at odds with each other in his eyes—my five o'clock shadow and my toenails painted silver, my long hair up in a beaded barrette and the obvious husk of my voice.
"The pleasure is mine, darlin'," Marshall replies warmly. To my surprise, he does not seem fazed by anything about me. I feel a wave of relief mixed with a twinge of guilt. Maybe I have misjudged.
He makes his way to the grass on my left side, where he remains standing. In front of us, beyond the dirt road, is a high chain-link fence, which encircles the namesake of the town—a massive orange tree grove stretching several miles eastwards. Most of the town's residents live here, on the western end of the Grove.
"How long ya here for?" Marshall asks.
"Been here a week already," I say. "Leaving tomorrow morning."
"Really now? Caught ya just in time, then," he says, shooting me a wink. Despite his age and a protruding beer belly, I notice his features are fairly handsome—high cheekbones, a head of salt-and-pepper hair and a mischievous smile, like that of a teenage boy. "I've heard a lot about ya. Your mom is over a lot. She and Debra, my wife, they're thick as thieves."
Working against the impulse to roll my eyes, I nod and take another sip of beer. Mom has talked about Debra, but she somehow glossed over the fact that Debra lives right next door and is married to a guy named Marshall. She has a habit of keeping small tidbits from me, at a glance seemingly random things, which I am expected to ask about and then resented for when I don't have the mind to bring them up organically. I often imagine this as a physical collection she keeps, every slight and snub stuffed away in its own indexed file, ready to withdraw as a weapon against me at a moment's notice.
There is a lull during which neither Marshall nor I resume the conversation, but not an uncomfortable one. The symphony of crickets fills the night. I begin to let my guard down.
"You guys were on vacation in the Keys?" I eventually offer.
"Sure were. Most people don't go in summer, with the heat and all. But that's the best time. Beaches are empty."
"My mom mentioned Debra invited her along," I say. "Nice of you to think of her." The words come out flat and phony. My mind is still on the filing cabinet. I add a more honest compulsion. "Don't count on her joining any time soon, though. You could set this place on fire, and she wouldn't leave."
I cringe at the words, barely believing that they are mine. What am I saying about my mother to her own neighbor? This is why I didn't want to see anyone while I was here, really. I don't like who I am here. I don't talk this way in New York.
There is a silence now of a different kind, dark and brooding. When Marshall speaks up again, his voice has turned cold, methodical.
"Well, I can say one thing for certain. There are some people who are stayers, and there are some who are strayers. Your mom—she's a stayer, through and through."
He turns to me then, chin pressed back into his neck, brows raised, and eyes shining, affixed with the two-toned light of the house and street lamp. "Just because you're the other sort—don't you look down on her now."
My mouth opens to reply, but nothing comes out. My stomach burns with shame and rage. How quickly I have been turned against, how little it took to become a little box in this man's mind. Stayer or strayer. Friend or faggot. What's the difference?
I have the sudden urge to barrel back into the house, retrieve the shreds of filthy wallpaper from the black garbage bag I stuffed them into, and paste them back onto the wall in a frenzy. She can keep her life just the way she likes it, gradually receding like a doomed hairline, until there's nothing left for her to comb over.
Marshall has long left to go inside. I continue to seethe in silence, the air still heavy with the weight of an unbalanced exchange. Directly in my line of vision, above one portion of the fence, there is a shadowy place, a branch that has grown over the chain-link, holding an unripe cluster of fruit.
Sonia Chien is a freelance writer and aspiring fiction author. She studied politics in her hometown of Boston, MA, before receiving her MA in Journalism in Berlin, Germany, where she currently lives. You can find her via Instagram @sonialchien.