The Ache by Cara Long (fiction)

 

Lisa wakes up early with a splitting headache – she’s been clenching her jaw all night. The left side of her face aches from doing so. Applying pressure to her temples, she lies on her back with her eyes closed. Her feet peek out from beneath the fraying quilt. She needs a pedicure.

“There are only so many problems a woman can deal with in life,” her aunt June often says, “having nasty feet doesn’t have to be one of them.” To Lisa, Aunt June has always sounded like a crass greeting card. She is known for her sayings and her twist on regional colloquialisms. When she was younger, Lisa stayed with Aunt June during the summers. June loved children but was unable to have any of her own. Aunt June really loved Lisa, but over the years she had made her cringe several dozen times with her down home country tongue.

One summer, the summer Lisa was 15 and had a painful crush on one of the bag boys at the local market, Aunt June got into a dustup with a young cashier as they were checking out. The checkout girl was moving very slowly and had a terrible attitude, which annoyed Aunt June who was prone to making chit chat and being familiar with everybody. The girl rebuffed June’s attempts to be friendly several times and kept ringing stuff up for the wrong price. By the fourth mistake things had started to get loud between them. The girl said something snotty to the effect of how old people are nasty and cheap (June was only 52 and hardly cheap), which did not sit right with Aunt June. She spit back: “Honey, I may look old and tired right now, but I can bet that you’re ugly and stupid all the damn time. Now go get your manager.”

Aunt June told Lisa to hang around for her talk with the manager, despite Lisa’s attempts to slink out to the car. “People will always try to push you around,” Aunt June had said, “even other women. You have to learn to hold your ground.” She winked at Lisa as she said this, who glanced around the store, embarrassed. The bag boy was watching. Lisa vowed not to return to June’s house the next summer, but she did anyway because by the time the following July rolled around, she couldn’t wait to go visit her aunt again.

June had never raised a family and was married only once, very briefly and she was less strict than Lisa’s parents. “Shoot,” she’d said, “you’re going to do all that stuff anyway. What’s the point of making you lie about it?” Lisa had sex for the first time the summer she was 16. She had forgotten about the bag boy by then – he could have fallen off the face of the earth for all she thought about him. Lisa met and fell in love with a boy named Ryan who worked at the car wash. The summer before Lisa had started hanging out with another girl her age who lived on her Aunt June’s street. The girl was a year older than Lisa so by the summer Lisa was 16, Noelle was 17 and had both her driver’s license and a car. Aunt June liked Noelle, so she had no problems with Lisa hanging out with her. One day the two girls were driving through town and Noelle decided that she needed her car washed. “There’s some really cute guys that work there,” Noelle told Lisa, grinning, before they pulled in. And right away, one of them caught Lisa’s eye. He was tall, and had dark hair and eyes. His arms were bare because he had rolled up the sleeves on his t-shirt and you could see the thick ropes of muscle on his arms. “Pick your jaw up off the floor,” Noelle said to her as they waited in line for the wash. The boy ran over to their car and leaned in the driver’s side window. Lisa sat up as straight as she could.

“Hey Noelle,” he said. He looked over at Lisa. “Hey,” he said. Lisa mumbled hello.

“She doesn’t live around here,” Noelle said, nodding toward Lisa. “She visits her Aunt in the summers.”

“I’m from Fall Creek,” Lisa said, wanting to say something. “It’s not too far away.”

He nodded and held her eyes for a few seconds. Noelle paid him for the car wash, and steered the car onto the tracks. In a minute, they were pulled inside. Lisa felt her heart pound and she enjoyed tremendously the rhythmic beating the brushes laid against the car. The girls emerged from the car wash squinting against the sudden daylight. The boy with the dark hair and eyes came back over to the car and Noelle rolled down her window again. “There’s a party at Thatcher’s Point tomorrow night. You two should come,” he said.

“Maybe,” Noelle said coyly and started to drive away. Lisa could not help throwing a glance back over her shoulder at him. He had his back to them now and was talking to another boy who worked there.

“His name’s Ryan,” Noelle said. “He’s dreamy, but…” her voice trailed off for a second then picked back up, “I don’t know.”

“What?” Lisa questioned her.

“He’s one of those guys,” Noelle said, turning to look at her friend. Lisa nodded, pretending to understand what Noelle had meant.

Noelle rolled her eyes knowing her friend had no clue. “He flirts with everybody,” she said.

The next night the girls got ready for the party together at June’s house. June told them not to look too pretty because they could end up pregnant. Lisa shrunk from the comment, but Noelle laughed. “I’m good on that,” she said to June. Noelle took birth control pills. Lisa had seen the pack in her purse many times. Lisa was a virgin, but she didn’t tell Noelle that. She was pretty private about most things. Noelle curled Lisa’s hair, and they left for the party around 10. “I want you to call me if you drink too much, Noelle,” Aunt June said. “I don’t drink,” Noelle told her. “Mmm,” Aunt June had responded. “There’s always a first time for everything.”

When they got to the party, not too many people had arrived. A few boys, Ryan among them, were taking the kegs out of the bed of a pickup truck. Noelle went to talk to one of them, leaving Lisa standing by herself, awkwardly biting her lip. After the boys had removed all the kegs, Ryan called Lisa over. “Can you help me tap this keg?” he asked her. She smiled and blushed – she had no idea what that meant. He laughed. “Here,” he said, then showed her how to attach the pump to the valve. He handed her the first cup of beer. The smell made her gag and she tried to sip it without smelling it. His friends then came over and all grabbed cups of beer. Noelle had attached herself to the arm of one boy – a tall, skinny blonde wearing a football jersey. The boy tried to pass Noelle a beer, but she declined. “See,” she said to Lisa, “I really don’t drink.”

A few more cars pulled up and about 15 more people joined the party. To Lisa, some of the girls looked like they were in their 20’s and they were gorgeous, with sleek, muscular legs and tight white tank tops. She instantly felt ashamed of herself, small and mousy, standing near the keg all alone. But then Ryan came over to her and asked if she’d ever been down to the beach at Thatcher’s Point. She said no, that she hadn’t, and he asked if she’d like to go, which she gladly did. The two of them walked over tree roots and rocks in the pitch dark. Ryan periodically turned around to make certain she was okay. “Careful,” he said to her, even though she had not fallen or even tripped, “you have to know where your feet are going before you can set them down.” At that moment, he reminded her of June.

The water shimmered that night because there was a low hanging full moon. Ryan picked up a stone and skipped it across the water. Lisa sipped from her beer. “You don’t have to drink that if you don’t like it,” Ryan said.

“I’ve never had beer before tonight,” she said, unembarrassed by the revelation. “It’s the smell I don’t like.”

He took a step closer to her and she let the cup fall by her side. She leaned forward and kissed him. He jerked his head back a tiny bit because she had surprised him. When the kiss was over she turned quickly and walked away, back toward the party. He said nothing and stayed behind on the beach. About an hour later, she saw him talking to another girl and she was flooded with jealousy. Lisa pretended not to see him, which he noticed. Before she left with Noelle, he pulled her aside. “We should hang out sometime,” he said to her. She smiled and said nothing in return. Lisa turned on her heels and let him watch her walk silently away.

The rest of the summer was a blur for Lisa. She spent a lot of time with Ryan. So much so that her aunt began referring to her as “stranger.” Lisa fell in love with Ryan. Her heart quickened its beat whenever she saw him. For Lisa, the love was made more appealing by the fact that it would end when she left at the end of the summer. Even at 16, Lisa never expected that anything would last forever. She supposed that was the June in her. On the day she left to go back home, Ryan took her to the train station instead of Aunt June. They kissed in his truck. “I really like you,” he said to her before she stepped out with her bags.

Lisa smiled and waved to him from the train window before turning to face forward. Now, twenty something years later she replays that moment while lying in her bed at June’s house. June has high blood pressure and Type II diabetes – she never was a healthy eater and it finally caught up with her a few years ago. Lisa recently moved in with her aunt to help her take care of things. Just divorced and also childless, Lisa can’t help but feel a little bit mournful for that summer. She takes a deep breath and holds it in, imagining a different life for herself, starting at that summer. What if she had stayed? What if she had not doubled up in high school in her junior year? She had needed to take summer classes so she could graduate and start college in the fall, so she did not see June (or Ryan or Noelle) the following year. Lisa exhales. What if? Except she knows that ‘what ifs’ never amount to anything, so she dismisses the thoughts. She sits up in her bed, preparing to go downstairs.

“C’mon, sleepy head,” June yells up the stairs to her. “I just pulled these ‘cakes off the griddle and they’re ready to party.” She plants her feet on the floor and heads downstairs to eat a stack of pancakes with Aunt June, who can be heard whistling the melody to a song Lisa can’t quite yet place.

Cara Long lives and works in New York State. She would love to wake up one day and not read or hear a piece of advice about how women should or shouldn’t look, act, talk, behave, breathe, live, write, smell (you get me). Just one day, please.

 

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