Judas, My Heart
His voice in the darkness of Maggie’s bedroom startled me. “So?” he asked, trying to sound romantic, but failing. I’d forgotten he was even there.
I glanced toward the bed. He smiled and slid a finger across my skirt, which had been discarded into a lumpy pile on the floor a half-hour earlier.
I turned back toward Maggie’s window and flicked my gaze between my apartment windows across the street and the sidewalk below, trying to catch a glimpse of my mother coming home from work, or see if she was already home. It was late, but my apartment lights were still off. Mom always worked late. Would she look up as she walked down the street and into our building, see me up here, know what I’d been doing? Part of me hoped so. Maggie’s window was open a crack, vacuuming in that sweaty cold smell of the city, and I shivered.
He sighed brusquely. Wanting my attention. Forget it. Why I ever let Maggie talk me into this . . .
I walked over to my clothes and began pulling them on, ignoring his puzzled expression.
“What’re you doing?”
A pouty-sounding, nasal sigh. “Unh! Judith . . .”
“I gotta go. It’s late.” And I hate my full name. Everybody, even my mom, calls me Judy or Jude.
“You said no one was coming home tonight,” he said.
Uh oh. Hadn’t I mentioned this wasn’t my apartment? I looked up at him and offered a little girly smile, hoping I could sweet-talk my way out. “Well, like, this is my friend’s room? She kinda—let me—borrow.” I didn’t finish.
“This isn’t your apartment?”
“Um, not so much,” I said, yanking on my sneakers. There was a hole in one side and the chill November air rushed right in.
I could tell he was putting his clothes back on under the blanket. “You are something else,” he said, chuckling.
What an adult-sounding thing to say, I thought. So . . . trite? Hearing him say it made me think of a game show host with really big teeth who over-enunciated every word.
I hurried to tie my shoes, then slowed as he got up and put his shoes on, too. He was leaving, I realized, which only made sense, because what had I planned to do till that moment? Leave him here all night? It wasn’t my apartment. Maggie would kill me! Leaving her empty apartment with this guy still in it? C’mon.
He patted himself down to see if his keys and wallet were where they ought to be. Suddenly his big hand was under my chin, gripping my face.
“Coulda been the best night of my life, Judas,” he said with a lopsided grin.
“Judith,” I said.
He laughed like he knew something I didn’t. “Thanks for the ride.”
He stepped out, his feet sounding heavier somehow than they had when we arrived.
I knew that last comment was meant to wound, but somehow it didn’t. I was just glad he was gone, and felt ashamed I’d been about to leave a stranger in my best friend’s apartment. Then I wondered: Judy, babe, is that really what you should be ashamed of?
I cleaned up Maggie’s room as best I could in the dark. I didn’t want to turn her light on, not even the tiny red desk lamp clamped to her headboard. I’d hit my head on it twice that night. I even changed all the sheets and everything. I knew her apartment as well as I knew my own, and worked in the dark. It helped somehow.
Then I left. Outside, orange streetlights hummed overhead, and in their light I could see it was starting to mist a little. Is mist a verb? If “rain” can be, why not?
I rushed across the street to our old apartment building. It wasn’t old in a good way, like a good old dog might be. It was just old. Decrepit. The windows drooped, like cartoon eyes crying.
I hurried into the building. The entry hall smelled like smoke and sweat and dead flowers, and at least one other bodily fluid, maybe more. The thought made me gag, and I rushed to the stairs. I’m fifteen, and the elevator hasn’t worked since I was born.
Our apartment was dark. I switched on the light and walked into the kitchen. I was hungry. But before I could make it to the fridge, I plopped into one of our cranky, mismatched vinyl kitchen chairs and cried my stupid eyes out.
Wow. It had been awhile. Years. You don’t cry in the city. It’s weak. But I couldn’t stop. With my arms folded on the cheap Formica tabletop with the cigarette-burn craters, my head on my arms, I caught a whiff of his stupid cologne, so I had to take my coat off and throw it across the room.
I couldn’t remember the guy’s name. Would I remember it tomorrow? The day after? If I ever had a boyfriend who asked who the first was, would I remember? I’d ask Maggie in the morning. She should know. She was experienced.
I rubbed my eyes and stared at the tabletop. I hated it. I hated the dirty chrome legs and the plaque-colored top with its cancerous brown burns. I wasn’t hungry anymore.
I went into my room, fell into my bed, and fell asleep wondering when Mom would get home.
The smell of eggs frying woke me up. It was nice to see the sun again. There was no sign of the light rain from the night before. I was still in last night’s clothes when I sat down at the nasty kitchen table and watched my mom cook.
“Mornin’, Sleepy,” she said.
I didn’t respond. But she probably didn’t expect me to. Years ago when I was young I’d reply, “Mornin’, Doc,” or “Mornin’, Bashful,” or one of the other Disney dwarves, but not today. Not for the last few months since Dad left.
And . . . when exactly did I stop being young? The thought turned my guts a little sour.
“Plans today?” Mom asked.
I shook my head, which she couldn’t hear, so she half-turned to look at me. “Sleep in your clothes?”
Out of nowhere, I said, “Mom, I had . . .” and then didn’t say anything else. Mom turned more fully toward me and cocked an eyebrow. I fished out a smile that wouldn’t look out of place on an early Saturday morning, and said, “a really weird dream.”
She kept looking at me, and I hated her. Was I some sort of monster now?
“What was it about?”
Good question. “Can’t remember,” I said.
Mom giggled a little, her thin, pointed shoulders pistoning up and down for a second before turning back to the stove. “You want some eggs?”
“Can we go to the park?” I asked, and almost gasped. I hadn’t planned on saying that, either. What else was I going to blurt out this morning?
The spatula Mom had been using crashed against the frying pan. I thought she was really mad. But when she looked at me, it was easy to see the surprise on her face.
“Say hmm?” Her version of say what?
“The park,” I said again, kicking the table legs hard enough to scoot the table across the linoleum a few inches at a time. “I thought maybe we could . . . I dunno, forget it.”
“Jude, wait a sec. What made you think of that?”
I shrugged. I didn’t know, really. It just hit me as something I wanted to do. I knew Maggie would be calling any minute, wanting to know details—last night is why they were called “gory” details, I imagined—and I wasn’t in the mood.
“You want me to take you to the park,” Mom said, confused.
I nodded. I realized I hadn’t wanted my mother anywhere near me in public for awhile. How come? Getting older, I guess. I didn’t like it. And I didn’t like glancing at her face and knowing what I was thinking was right. She looked like she might cry. Instead she went back to cooking.
“Well. Okay. When?”
I peeked at the rusty clock above the sink. “Soon? We could have lunch at Gepetto’s.”
“I’m just now cooking eggs, Jude.”
“I know . . .” My hope was fading. Any second that phone would ring and Maggie would demand, So’d’ja do it, huh?
Mom must not have wanted to pass up the opportunity to be a mom again. She swirled around and snapped the electric burner off. “Forget the eggs,” she said quickly, and dumped them, still steaming, into the trash can by the fridge.
Mom dashed to her room and I could hear her fumbling around. Finding something to wear, I guessed. I went back into my room and changed out of all the clothes I’d been wearing since the night before. I was calm and deliberate, enjoying that it was my hands, not his that were doing the undressing. “Okay!” Mom called from the other room.
I kicked the dirty clothes under my bed, jammed my hands into the pockets of my jeans, and walked out of my room.
Mom didn’t have many dresses, but she was wearing one now. It was chilly outside, but she wasn’t wearing a coat. I felt bad for her. Probably every penny she made went to keeping the apartment. That sucked.
She should be at work, I realized. During the day, six days a week, she cleaned rich people’s penthouses uptown. At night she was a waitress. Saturday should have been a busy day for her. Instead she was walking with me down to the park. We hadn’t been to the park together since, like, forever.
Before the park, though, came Gepetto’s, where, if we had a little extra that week, we’d dive into the thickest Chicago pizza Gepetto could sculpt. Nobody made pizza and calzones like Gepetto. His skill was legendary in our neighborhood.
Gepetto was flipping a circle of dough above his head and catching it, over and over, the circle getting wider, thinner, wider, thinner. Gepetto greeted us with a great big, “Heeeeey, how you doooooin’?!” Gepetto makes everyone smile.
Gepetto tossed the raw dough one last time, and it was expertly caught by one of his many sons who helped run the place. He jiggled his big belly over to the table with an order pad in his plump hand.
“Hey-a! Who we have-a here, ah?” he shouted at my mother. He always sounded like he was yelling. “This is your be-yutiful sister, no?” Gepetto winked big at me.
“Jude is my daughter,” Mom said, with a little blush I hadn’t seen in a long time. Only I thought she said, “Judas, my daughter.”
Gepetto gave a big roar that said, “You are too young to be her mother!” But he let it go with hearty laugh, licked his pencil, and took our order.
Mom and I didn’t talk. I was uncomfortable. I also needed a shower, and more sleep, and to forget last night ever happened.
“How are you, Jude?”
I don’t know how many times she asked before I heard. I twitched. “What? Fine.”
“You look . . . peaked.”
One of her favorite words. I always thought of the word as two, like an order to some kindergartner who was potty training, like, “Pee, kid!” So what if I was peaked? I didn’t want to get into it. Then again, what did I want to get into? Why were we here? Why going to the park? The whole morning made no sense. I felt ill.
Mom reached over and held my chin. It was the same way that guy did just a few hours before.
“You’re beautiful, you know that?”
My jaw tightened and my mouth went suddenly salty. I couldn’t avoid her eyes. I grabbed handfuls of my jeans under the table and twisted the denim in my hands.
“No,” I said. Even I could barely hear it.
Mom still smiled. Her worn, thin fingers brushed at my bangs. “Sure you are,” she said. “You’re becoming quite the young lady.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
“’Cause I’m your mom,” she said, still smiling, and I couldn’t figure out why. “Moms know stuff like that.”
“Oh yeah? What else do they know?” I wondered for the first time if maybe I’d get—could already be—pregnant. I’d been careful, but I was also stupid and didn’t have the best of luck, and how would I have known if things were working right?
Mom’s head titled a little. “They know when something is bothering their daughter,” she said softly. “But they also know that maybe it’s better not to poke around. Maybe she has to come to you.” Mom’s smile ran away, and she folded and refolded her napkin in her lap. Without being able to see, I knew it was into the same shapes she folded our t-shirts. I could tell by the funny way her little shoulders jerked around. She looked embarrassed, like she’d said something she shouldn’t have. But she hadn’t. Had she?
The pizza arrived. We gobbled most of it without any more words, and polished off a couple of pops. Mom left Gepetto a big tip. Big for us, anyway.
We got to the park just past noon. Mom and I circled it for awhile, like grade schoolers at their first dance, afraid to actually step foot on the browngreen grass because we didn’t have a daddy or little brother with us. But finally we stepped bravely onto the playground as if expecting someone to challenge our ages. “No grownups on the playground!”
The playground, unlike the rest of the park, was oddly deserted. Maybe because it was lunch time and many picnics were starting to appear in the grass. We ended up by the swings, and after a little taunting from me, Mom finally climbed into one of the old rubber seats. I pumped my legs hard, got some good air, and got the chains to bounce because I’d gone too high and they lost tension. That made Mom yell at me, but she smiled when she did it. Mom just sort of pushed back and forth a little bit. I stopped pumping and let myself swing to a near-halt.
“What happened last night?” Mom asked.
Like a bat had cracked my skull open. Maybe it was my ribs. I don’t know. But the words hurt. A lot. More of that mom’s intuition stuff I guess.
“I’d rather forget it,” I said.
“Baby, there’s a lifetime of things I’d like to forget too,” Mom said, and I noticed she didn’t sound regretful or self-pitying. Just kind of . . . wise. “But forgetting a thing doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And talking about it . . . helps.”
Caught her! That time, she wasn’t so confident. It was a quote. Something someone else had told her, something she had read in a tabloid or heard on a talk show. But her face was sincere.
“Why does it help?” I really wanted to know this. People said it all the time, but what did it mean? They were only words.
Mom laughed. “You know what, Jude? I don’t have any idea.” She laughed some more, and I kind of grinned too. Then I stood up in the seat and swung from a standing position for awhile.
“How was Maggie’s?”
That sour queasiness settled in my guts again. “I was there pretty late,” I said, wanting to say more. I don’t think Mom would have been angry. I don’t think she would have yelled. But maybe it would be easier if she did. Maybe what I wanted was for her to yell at me, slap me, punish me, say, “You stupid girl, what were you thinking?!” Someone had to, didn’t they? Someone had to.
“How’s she doing?” Mom asked.
“She’s fine.” More words climbed up my throat, and I strangled them down.
We stayed at the park for a while longer, then went home, climbing the stairs side by side. Once in our apartment, Mom looked at the clock and muttered.
My mouth opened, but I couldn’t speak. I wanted to tell her everything, how important it had seemed just two days ago to experience what I had, and how much I already missed what I’d given up. Even though Mom knew something was going on, she wasn’t going to drag it out of me, no matter how badly I wanted her to. She’d wait until I came to her, if ever.
Mom was trying not to look like she was in hurry to put on her work clothes. I felt bad that I had dragged her out today.
“Mom?” I said, sitting down at the Formica table, and not loathing it as much as I had earlier.
“Yeah?” she called from her bedroom.
“Thanks for going with me today.”
Mom poked her head through the doorway and smiled. “Thank you, too,” she said. “You staying home today?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll make dinner tonight if you want.”
“Jude, that would be wonderful. You want to invite Maggie?”
“Nah,” I said. “Just us. I wanna tell you about—that dream. And stuff.”
Mom sort of smiled and came into the kitchen pulling a sweater over her head. She hugged me close, my head against her belly, and sang quietly, “Jude is my heart.”
She used to sing that to me when I was little, and for the first time that day, I felt all right.
Later that night, after dinner, we talked.
Tom Leveen was born and raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he was Artistic Director of "Is What It Is Theatre" for 12 years. (www.iswhatitis.org) He has published fiction previously in The Conqueror, Long Story Short, Theater of Decay, and The Five Stones. He recently married his love, Joy, and they are raising two big slobbery dogs in lieu of children (for the moment).
Photo Courtesy of 123rf.
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Fiction Copyright © 2007 Tom Leveen. All rights reserved.