This was what I needed, a distraction to keep me from thinking too much, a simple task to occupy my hands.
I reached for the garlic powder and tipped the canister over the sauce. The beige granules dusted over the top and clouds of savoury residue made me wrinkle my nose. Holding back a sneeze I stirred quickly, my mind numbed by the smell of spaghetti and meat balls.
The small kitchen brimmed with the fragrant aroma of dinner, but as nice as it was, I was running late. Mom left forty minutes ago to pick Dad up from work and Gabriel from tutoring. If I didn't hurry up I'd still be cooking by the time they got home.
I took a spoonful of sauce sipped, smacked my lips, and smiled. The paprika was a good decision. I just hoped that Dad would like it. There was a certain way he liked his spaghetti and meatballs, just like he had a certain way for everything else.
The doorbell rang.
I sighed and turned the element off, then went to rinse the spoon off under the sink. Mom would kill me if I left a stain on the counter.
Knock, knock, knock.
I jumped. Geez, they were impatient. I left the wooden spoon in the sauce pan, wiped off my hands on the front of my apron, and crossed the flower print tile floors of the kitchen into the carpeted entryway off the hall. Mom must have forgotten her keys at home. She did that sometimes.
But the key hooks above the shoe wrack were empty except for mine. Moreover, why would they come to the front door in the first—
KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK!
The door bell rang again. I blinked, staring at the door.
I shook my head and reached for the doorknob. She must have left the keys somewhere else. Maybe she was holding groceries and her arms were getting tired. If they'd just come a bit later I'd have everything ready for them. But now—
I opened the door and froze at the woman standing on the doorstep.
"Oh," I said, blinking at her. "Hello." It came out like a question. Hello? What are you doing here? Would you kindly leave?
It was our neighbour, Alex. I retreated a bit into the house. "My parents aren't here. Sorry—"
I meant to close the door. I know it was rude, as if she was some sales woman that was too demanding for my personal comfort, but I knew how Dad felt about her. I wouldn't want him to start asking questions if he came by any time soon, which I knew he would. It didn't even make sense why she was here in the first place. Normally we avoided each other like oil and water. Being a wall apart was just about as close as we could handle.
I meant to close the door, but Alex jammed her foot inside so quick I swore she was a sales woman. My eyes trailed up from the foot up to her face and I noticed the tall white woman's expression for the first time. She had a long, pointed nose, which wrinkled, making her thin upper lip curl up and tremble.
"I know your parents aren't here—" She'd been crying. The skin around her brown eyes was puffy and red. Her hair stuck out in all directions from her pony tail, eyes wide. My hair stood on end. "—b-but I'm having an emergency. Do you know CPR?"
It took me a split second to register the words. Do you know CPR? I'd never heard it in any context other than a job interview. Do you know CPR? Oh you do? When was the last time you renewed your license?
But this wasn't a job interview. No, this was a grown woman crying at my doorstep in her bathrobe and suddenly the question, do you know CPR? made my heart stop.
I opened the door wide and stepped outside. "Show me the way," I said.
Alex nodded, a look of relief washing over her, and then she dashed off the porch, crossed the lawn, and opened the door of her side of the duplex. I followed close behind. Her blond ponytail bounced all the way there. Once inside, the sound of a woman sobbing assaulted my ears. My hands clenched into fists and my jaw locked shut, a shiver running up my spine.
Her side was eerily similar to ours, just a mirror image with blue walls instead of brown and modern art where we had family photos and crosses. There was a scratching on the tile kitchen floors and a pack of tiny pugs came zooming out of the hall to meet me, their eyes bugging out of their sockets. They began yipping, nothing I hadn't heard before, but it made me jump. Alex cursed.
"Do you know where the bathroom is?"
I nodded. Even though it wasn't my house I could guess from the layout that it was off the hall adjacent to the kitchen. I jogged to it, moving through the pack of dogs gingerly as they jumped up and snapped their little mouths around my legs. Steam curled out of the washroom in lazy wisps that crowded the floor and made me sticky before I even entered.
I expected blood judging by the crying, but instead there was Gwen, Alex's wife, clutching the body of a naked teenage girl. Gwen was a pudgy woman in her mid thirties with natural red hair and flushed cheeks. Like Gwen and Alex the girl was white skinned, but her hair was black and her arms and legs were decorated with angry red slashes and older, shiny white scars from self-inflicted cuts. She was completely bare, droplets of water rolling off her soft skin and pooling on the floor.
Gwen looked up as I entered. "H-help."
I snapped back into focus and bent down, lifting her upper body off Gwen's lap and onto the bathroom tiles.
"What happened?" My eyes flicked to the bathtub and then to the scars on her arms. I responded to my own question."She tried to drown herself? How long has she been out?"
Gwen wiped her nose. "F-five minutes? Can you save her?"
I didn't answer. "Have you called 911?"
Gwen nodded. "They take so long. I'll go call again, t-tell them it's urgent."
She ran from the bathroom, leaving me and the girl alone. Out of habit, I checked for breathing, but of course there was none.
I adjusted her neck into the correct position and began compressions, counting as I went.
"One, two, three, four, five..."
Tipping her head back, I covered her mouth with mine and blew gently, my eyes trained to her chest to see if it was rising. It did. By the slightest amount, but it did. That was good.
I went back too compressions. "One, two, three, four, five..."
"Yes, 911? It's the suicide attempt a-at 29-B Inkerman Avenue. Uh-huh. Drowning in the bathtub. She's eighteen... My niece, Valentina. When is the ambulance going to come? I'm not sure how much longer we can wait." Gwen appeared in the doorway but I didn't turn my back to Valentina.
She was my age and she lived right beside me. You'd think she'd go to my school but I'd never seen her before now.
I tipped her head for the second time, blew a bit more air in, and began compressions all over again. Gwen watched and continued talking. "Yes, my neighbour is doing CPR right now. She's a life guard... I know, very lucky."
Barking and the sound of Alex running, Gwen sniffling, the water still pouring in the bathtub as my hands pressed against Valentina's silky wet skin. It was chaos, but I could handle chaos. It was like being on stage. You just had to keep a cool head and continue acting. You could never panic, and I wasn't about to.
Still, it felt like ages of compressions and pressing my mouth to Valentina's before the sounds of sirens joined the jumble of noises around me. Gwen groaned in relief, whispering, "They're here."
I didn't stop, opening her mouth so I could blow air into her lungs. I moved to compressions, pressed down, and—
Valentina jerked and splattered water all over my apron. She choked, clutching her pale throat as water splashed onto the floor. Her eyes bulged. Her face purple went with strain, and then the last of the water came out. Holding onto the counter, the girl stared at me. She looked down to her naked body, back at me, and she blushed. So did I.
"Sorry about this," I said. "Valentina, right? My name is Daphne."
Valentina didn't answer me. She just got redder and redder in the face until her aunt came rushing in with a bathrobe.
"Sweetie, oh, sweetie!" Gwen wrapped the fluffy robe around her niece, who looked annoyed and extremely embarrassed at the same time. The robe was two times larger than she was and patterned with pug faces on a pink backdrop. Her aunt kissed every portion of her face that she could find and Valentina squirmed like a five year old kid. I couldn't help but smile, which seemed to aggravate her more.
"Tina, the ambulance is here."
"Ambulance? I don't need an ambulance." Her voice was hoarse. She struggled more, but Gwen was trapped in some kind of maternal hysteria. "Let me go, and stop calling me Tina!"
"You should probably take the ambulance," I said. Gwen stopped kissing Valentina and looked at me. Then, without any warning she dove at me and began planting kisses on my cheeks as well.
"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!" she cried, tears still streaming down her face. I wriggled free and turned on my heel, speed walking away, wide eyed and terrified.
Outside everybody along Inkerman Avenue was either looking out their windows at the ambulance or had stepped out of their houses to ask Alex what the problem was. Our neighbours were only unpopular amongst our family, while the rest of the community loved seeing the two lesbians walking their five pugs every morning. What could I say? It was a crowd pleaser. Everybody knew how we, or should I say, everybody in my family but me, felt about them.
Nobody knew what kept me up at night, so they'd assume that I was just as religious as my parents. However, people had begun to notice me on the porch, which wasn't good.
I scurried out of the way as Gwen and Valentina moved through, Valentina blushing harder than ever, tears streaming down her face as Gwen rushed her out. Despite the fact that her niece had just attempted suicide in her bathtub, Gwen looked euphoric that she was alive.
The paramedics met Valentina at the sidewalk and escorted her to the back of the van with welcome gestures. I could hear them asking questions from my spot on the porch, "Do you hurt anywhere?", "Do you have a past history of suicidal depression?", "Are you taking any medications?". While they did this I took my chance to reposition myself. I walked nonchalantly off their porch, across the lawn to my side of the house, and then I stuck myself inside the door as if I'd been standing there watching the whole time.
It was good timing, because a minute later I heard the back door close somewhere in the back of my house. My family had returned.
"Daphne?" Mom called. "What's that smell?"
I turned and sniffed, nose wrinkling. Rushing into the house, I found the source. The meatballs were burning and the kitchen had filled with the smell of charred meat. There were no windows in the kitchen, so I kept the door open as I opened the oven door and fanned the smoke out of the house.
Mom appeared in the doorway, a short Filipina woman with shiny black hair that was cropped short in a bob. Dad came in behind her. He was exceptionally tall, wide shouldered, and a bit stooped from his office job. He looked like a Filipino actor, or maybe a model. I must have inherited my height from him, because Mom stood at least a foot below both of us.
"Daphne, what are you doing?" Dad snapped. He came in, waving his arms around and grabbing the kitchen mitts. I moved out of the way as he reached into the oven, pulled out the rack, and hurried towards the door to throw the meatballs outside. Instead of coming back in he stayed in the doorway, staring. Mom met him and covered her mouth. I joined them.
"Sorry, I got distracted by the ambulance," I said.
"What happened?" Mom asked, uncovering her mouth.
"I'm not sure. It was our neighbours, though."
"Ugh," Dad said. He turned around, taking the hot pan with him. "It's God's way of saying they're abominations. We really need to move out of this place—it's not a good environment for the kids, Laura."
"Mmhm," Mom murmured. She turned away as well, leaving me in the doorway staring at the retreating ambulance. Dad's words replayed again and again inside my head.
Across the avenue, Mr. And Mrs. Herb went back into their houses, and Trisha Kristie, a girl who went to my school and was a year younger than me, closed her window after she watched the ambulance turn the corner. I closed the door behind me too, mind drifting to what might happen when they came back. Would they show up at our door with a casserole thanking me profusely, or would they be smart enough to act like it never happened? Probably the former. Dad always told me that when you're driving you should assume that everybody else on the road is less intelligent than you are. I took that advice away from the car as well.
I'd just have to contact them in private to make sure they understood. I'd kept secrets from my parents before. In fact, I kept secrets from them every day.
I closed the door before I walked back into the house. Mom had taken the initiative to set up the table while I'd idled on the porch, and I helped put food on plates while Dad got the cutlery. The three of us worked well together. They were bigoted, sure, but they weren't horrible. The way they moved around each other, like dancers, flashing each other a smile, I could tell that they loved each other. Not everybody had that, and I was grateful.
"Here," he said, walking into the room. His hair was greased back like all the boys did these days, and he smelled of Axe and laundry detergent. I ruffled his hair and he slapped my hand away.
"Ooh, somebody's grumpy," I whispered. He glowered at me. The bags under his eyes were worse than normal, and that was saying something. "Cheer up, I'm just joking," I added.
Gabriel plopped down on his seat and put his elbows on the table, which Mom promptly pointed out, making him take them off. He crossed his arms instead, which at least followed the rules. We sat, and like every night, Dad interlocked his fingers and we all did the same. I closed my eyes.
"I'd like to thank Jesus Christ, our saviour, for this meal. Please let it nourish our family and keep us strong so that we may follow the path of God. Please keep this family safe and loving, and I thank you, our God, for our two healthy children, my brilliant wife—"
"And my gorgeous husband," Mom said.
I cracked a smile, and I could hear Dad smiling as he continued. "And thank you for my good looks. Amen."
"Amen," I said. I opened my eyes and picked up my fork, planted it in the mound of spaghetti on my plate, and twisted.
Sometimes, after Dad said, 'Thank you for our two healthy children," I felt sick. If he knew, he would stop saying that, and I didn't want him to stop. I didn't want him to call me an abomination. If he'd known that I'd held a naked girl and pressed my lips to hers, even if it was only mouth to mouth resuscitation, he'd probably take me to church to confess my sins.
It wasn't like I enjoyed doing that to Valentina while she was out cold. I wasn't sick like that. But maybe, under different circumstances...
It didn't matter. None of it mattered because he, and Mom, and Gabriel would never find out. There was no option of telling them. I was going to live the rest of senior year happy and normal and they would never know the difference. It was called acting, and I was exceptionally good at it.