1. The sun was falling hot across my bed. A line of neighborhood girls jumped rope across the street, chanting rhymes I knew were about boys. I watched out the window until my stomach drove me downstairs.
My father was in the living room lacing up his shoes. The shades were drawn and it took a minute for my eyes to adjust.
“Where’s mom?” I said. She was always the first one up.
“In her bedroom. What are you doing awake?”
He looked at his watch like he was noticing it for the first time. “Damn,” he said. He took a deep breath and stood up.
“When’s breakfast?” I asked.
“Probably not for a while.”
He walked over to the hall closet and twirled his jacket over his shoulders. He put on an old-fashioned fedora—his traveling hat—and adjusted the brim. I followed behind him.
I told him the rhyme I heard and asked what it meant. I knew what it meant, but I felt like I had to keep talking, to hold him there as long as I could. He turned and looked at me for the first time since I came downstairs. My cheeks burned.
“Where’d you hear that?” he said.
“Some girls were singing it outside.”
He looked me over for a moment and opened his mouth like he was going to say something. Instead, he grabbed his keys. “You’ll have to ask your mother,” he said, and walked out the door.
The apartment was on the top floor of a brick three flat just outside the city, with arched doorways and crown molding. It felt so substantial after the thin suburban house I grew up in. A fleeting illusion. Rent was set at only seven hundred dollars per month.
“So you don’t give me headaches,” said Luis, the landlord. I told him I understood, and asked where to sign. I walked through the apartment for the rest of the afternoon, saying, “This is my house.”
It was only a few days later that I discovered the true price of my independence. Faucets leaked, runners came untacked, windows jammed. The new tub featured so prominently in the listing turned out to be a nothing more than a new plastic liner installed on top of the old one. When I showered, water seeped between them and pooled like a warm blister under my feet. It was as if the contents of the apartment had been balanced against each other like cards; with each movement the air would stir and something new would collapse.
Luis didn't return my messages, so I called my mom and asked her what to do.
“You had to have your own place,” she said. I didn’t respond. Static hummed quietly on the line. She sighed and told me to report Luis to the city. I thanked her and said she could come visit if she wanted. She told me to be safe and hung up.
The inspector arrived the next week armed with a clipboard and a persistent yawn. His name badge said ‘Vernon’.
“Luis is a slumlord," I told him.
“Yeah,” Vernon said, poking at the tub floor with the end of his pencil. "We've had trouble with him before."
He said he'd file a report, but there wasn't much he could do. Luis had an attorney, and they didn't have the budget for litigation.
"What are my options?" I asked.
Vernon shrugged as he headed for the door. "Find a new place, I guess."
Our first date was Thai food in Wicker Park. The owner was an older man who grinned like a fish whenever he saw Carrie. He told her she had beautiful hair, comparing it to sunlight, the mane of a lioness, golden carp. All night, he found excuses to touch her hand.
"You take care with this one," the old man said. He held up Carrie's finger and wagged it at me while she stifled a laugh with her other hand. "I snatch her away, you’ll see."
After we were married, Carrie insisted we devote an entire year to seeing the world. I had barely left the state, but would have followed her anywhere. We scraped together what we could at the end of each month, mostly from Carrie’s tips. She hid the money away and we didn’t touch it, even when we needed it desperately.
The night we counted our spoils and realized we had enough, we danced around our apartment, the thin floors bouncing underneath us. We fell onto the couch and she worked out of her jeans while I fumbled with her blouse. Like teenagers, we rushed through it. We rushed through everything then.
When we told my mom, her voice sounded thin and tired over the phone. I knew she was excited—she loved babies. She wanted a whole troop of them. It was my dad who decided one was more than enough.
I drove out to see her a couple days later. The house was dark. Blankets were hung over the windows in the living room. No lights, no TV, nothing. She was lying on the couch with a towel over her eyes.
“You ok, mom?”
“Just a headache.”
“Thought I’d come by. I haven’t seen you since the news.” I looked around for signs of life; cups, napkins, magazines. “You want me to make you something while I’m here?”
“Not so loud, please,” she said, holding up her hand. Her arm was thin and knobby, and her skin hung loosely from her bones. I told her I was going to make her a doctor appointment. She tried to object but gave up, spent.
Glass twinkled like dew on the twisted metal.
“We don’t know anything yet,” they said.
Harper and I sat together at breakfast, trying to feel like a family without her mother at the table. She ate cereal with soggy, open mouthed bites, and I created online itineraries for trips I would never take.
“Daddy?” she said. “Do you ever dream while you’re awake?”
“Daydreams,” I said.
She smiled. “I’m having one right now.”
I watched her; eyes closed, kicking her feet. Everything around her—the vase on the counter, the framed pictures of her mother, grandmother—felt cold and solid. I wondered where she went off to and wished I could follow. I closed out of the travel site and shut my laptop.
“Just one more minute, Daddy,” said Harper. “My dream is almost done.”
About the Author: Refe Tuma (@RefeUp) lives and and writes copy in Kansas City. His fiction has appeared in Bartleby Snopes (voted Story of the Month in March 2013), Short, Fast, and Deadly, and The Rusty Nail. His non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times and all sorts of blogs. Refe also serves as an editorial contributor at Paper Darts.
Story Song: "Daydream" by Tycho