Yes, before you all ask, I am still finishing my other story. This is going to be maybe a three- or four-shot.
It's kind of like our running joke
but it's really not funny
and I just want you to live up
to the image of you I create.
- Ani DiFranco, "Dilate"
Miami, Summer 1988
This is really all Rachel's fault, or her father's, Juliet thinks as she swipes the groceries over the scanner. While most of Juliet's classmates are living it up during their last summer before college, Juliet's stuck in a sweltering Miami summer as checkout girl at the Publix on Biscayne Boulevard. And calling her mother's stupid hospice from the payphone outside on her breaks.
And Rachel's living with a bunch of stoner grad-school rejects doing too many drugs in the Arizona desert and following Phish in her copious spare time. Must be nice.
What the hell is it with her sister, anyway? It's like Rachel's always trying to run away from her.
It would all be fine, even, except Rachel was supposed to fly in last night and instead called with all sorts of excuses about how she'll be here next weekend instead, and Dad's supposed to be coming up from Key West so now Juliet's going to have to face him alone, and please don't let that be Stephen Brisson who just walked in the door. Juliet's rumpled uniform shirt is streaked with who knows what, and there's a long scratch on her arm where the vacuum-sealed seam of a frozen pork loin caught her skin. She yanks at one of the rubber bands around her wrist and pulls her hair back.
Stephen's here with a nicely dressed older woman who's probably his mother. She's wearing neatly pressed white slacks, a peach-colored blouse, a simple gold bracelet. Juliet feels a tremor of anger jolt through her; her own mother hasn't been out of pajamas in more than two weeks. She loses sight of them after they disappear at the end of the produce aisle and manages to forget about them until they appear in her line. Perfect.
Even though she's supposed to say hello and ask how they're doing this afternoon, she swallows her automatic greetings and starts ringing up their groceries. She can feel Stephen watching her. "Didn't you go to South Miami Senior?" he says eventually, and her heart does a stupid little flip.
She clenches her jaw. "Yeah." She tops off the first bag and tries to smile, sliding the bag across the counter to Stephen's mother.
"Yeah, yeah, I thought so. Melanie, right?"
Juliet wants to sink through the floor and die. She doesn't even know what to say, and feels a blush rising up. "Um," she gestures toward her nametag. Which is totally right over her boob. Great. Why doesn't she just slow him some cleavage while she's at it?
Except Stephen's mom chuckles. "Nice move, Stevie."
Juliet bites her lip to ward off the threat of sudden laughter. Yeah, Stevie, she thinks.
He has the good sense to look embarrassed at least, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck."I mean - I know who you are and all, you were in fourth-period chem with Mr. Ziegner, it's just - "
She decides to cut him some slack. "Melanie was my lab partner."
"Oh. Oh, right. I'm Stephen."
I know, she thinks. "Oh."
Stephen's mom sort of smirks at them, hands him her wallet. "I'll bring the car around. Think you can finish up here?"
"Yeah, no problem." He nods to his mom, who leaves. Good woman. "You don't talk a whole lot, huh? Are you uh... You going to school this fall?" She looks up at him, wondering why he should be at all curious about her. "Here, lemme help you," he continues. He starts bagging groceries. Frozen peas, chicken breast (it's on special this week), asparagus (99 cents a pound, also on special), tomatoes. Three are fine and the fourth one looks a little wonky.
"UCLA," she finally says. "You're going to crush the croissants, put them on top."
"Long way from home." he observes.
Well, obviously. She'd think he was dumb if he weren't so damn pretty. She needs to get the hell out of Miami, though, and she's pretty sure that by the end of the summer, there won't be anything left for her here anyway. She feels that shiver of fear that she's usually pretty good at ignoring, and fixes her eyes on Stephen. "It'll be an adventure," she manages. "How about you?"
"Oh, MCU. Not so much of an adventure." Stephen looks a lot more nervous than Juliet feels right now. Then again, she really has nothing to lose. "Listen, maybe we could, uh..." He shifts his weight to his right foot.
She tilts her head at him. Say it, say it, please, she thinks.
"Julie!" her manager barks. "Your line is backing up, you can flirt on your own time!"
Stephen turns bright red, hefts the bags onto his hip. "See you around, Julie."
She takes just a moment to glance up at the age-curling drop ceiling, blinking back tears. She focuses on her next customer. "Good afternoon, welcome to Publix, did you find everything you were looking for today?"
Juliet gets home from work at 10, lets the dog out (what's going to happen to Georgie, she wonders) and shuffles through the mail. Hospital bill, hospital bill, Good Housekeeping (what a fucking joke), hospice bill (great, that's the first one), junk mail, collections agency. Her father can deal with that later. If he ever decides to show up.
She orders dumplings and sesame chicken from Grand Hunan, which is the same exact thing she eats every night she works late. She crosses today off the calendar, June 20. She's not exactly sure what she's crossing off, but she'd graduated high school five days ago. Her mother came, driven by her friend Christie.
Christie had offered to have Juliet stay at her house. "Your mother is like a sister to me, hon," she'd told her, chain-smoking outside the hospice after they'd brought her mother back. Chain-smoking like it couldn't possibly ever cause cancer. That's Texans for you. "We hate the idea of you rattlin' all around that big ol' house all by yourself."
"I'm fine," Juliet had assured her. "Rachel's coming next week, anyway."
Christie patted her arm in a gesture that showed she was nobody's mother, not really. "You just remember my offer, hon."
Rachel finally shows up in mid-July. She's driven her junk-bunket '76 Nova all the way from Flagstaff with a sturdy-looking pitbull mix in the back, and Georgie hides out in the backyard and Juliet hides out there, too, up in a tree like she's 10 instead of 18 after Rachel calls all her old friends and stages a party on her first night back.
"Come down and join the party, Juuuuulie!" Rachel's friend Todd bellows at Juliet. His voice is slurred as hell and he's standing at the base of the tree holding a beer in one hand and a bottle of Jose Cuervo in the other. Juliet just stares down at him.
"Leave her alone, Todd." Rachel inhales the last bit of the joint and stubs it out on the edge of the patio table. "Juliet just always wants to be left alone."
That's not true, she thinks, but she shifts and looks away from them. Looks up at the sky.
Their mother dies the next day. Rachel is with her when it happens and Juliet doesn't find that fucking fair at all.