TWO WEEKS IN NEW MEXICO
BY SARAH N.
One night my Aunt Rita spotted me in my pajamas on the way to my room and asked me if I’d brushed my teeth. I never liked doing it, and often didn’t if I thought I could get away with it. “Yes,” I said. I’d always thought I was a marvelous liar.
“I bet you did,” she said eyeing me over.
“What about you?” I asked trying to change the subject.
“I didn’t feel like it.” She started walking back to her room. “And don’t you try using that excuse on your father,” she threw over her shoulder. “I’m a big kid. I can do what I like.”
Aunt Rita came to stay at our house in Westchester every few years. I always made sure my calendar was clear. She was my father, plus three years and thirty pounds. She’d gone back to smoking and he hadn’t. Her marriage had broken up and she was bitter, my dad’s still had a few years to go. Other than that, they were the same person.
I’d sit at our old kitchen table after dinner every night, watching them nurse their coffees as long as I could keep their minds off my bedtime. They’d gripe about the world, tease each other, and every now and then, come up with something incredibly insightful. Every time Aunt Rita came to visit, I’d ask for new stories from when they were young.
Rita would sit back in her chair and start talking about good times back on the farm and some foolish thing that her little brother Mikey had done.
“Now wait a minute, Rita. That’s not how it happened. You were the one who…”
“Oh can it, Michael. We both know how the milk cans got there.” There’s another thing: Aunt Rita could make my dad back down –something I’d never managed. She was the oldest and she didn’t take talk from anybody.
When she dragged her bags out the door at the end of each visit, she would remind us that her door was always open. It wasn’t until the summer after eighth grade that I finally took her up on the offer.
She picked me up from the airport in her beat-up hatchback and we drove two hours back to her little town in New Mexico. When we arrived at the house, the sun stood right overhead but the air was mild and breezy. It ruffled the leaves of an overgrown tree in her front yard. This was July? I wasn’t even sweating. This was New Mexico? There weren’t any skulls sitting in the sand outside her house. No rolling sagebrush. No circling vultures. The only thing that circled her house on this suburban block was a waist-high chain link fence. The gate was sagging with age and it scraped the concrete as Rita pushed it open and waved me inside.
The house was huge for only one person. When we got inside I realized that it was divided into four apartments and Rita only had rights to the left side of the first floor. She didn’t get the view, but had a back door directly out of her apartment into her own backyard (a six by ten area of weeds half covered with rusty junk). That’s where the cat got in and out of this “pet free” apartment. Anyone who paid a visit would know instantly that Rita broke the rules. The first thing that hit me when my aunt opened the door was the smell of cat urine. The air was saturated with it. I wondered if urine fumes were toxic. My aunt walked into the apartment and stepped over the spot on the floor where I imagined myself convulsing in toxic shock.
“That’s your bed,” she said over her shoulder as she walked past the couch.
“Great.” Did I have any other options?
“Hope you don’t mind sleeping in the living room. The guest room is under renovation.” Just like my father. The Mayworths are aristocrats at heart, no matter what their pocketbooks may say. My father loved to tell me that it was “the maid’s day off” whenever I didn’t clean up after myself at home.
“Oh, no trouble. I’m fine with anything.”
“It pulls out and the sheets are there on the chair.”
I looked over and there, as promised, was a pile of two mismatching sheets and a blanket. At this point in my life, my mother still made my bed after she washed my sheets. All I had to do was re-arrange them every morning. I’d never really made a bed before. Of course I knew what to do, I just wasn’t extremely excited at the prospect of doing it.
We went out to Kentucky Fried Chicken. I had only been there once before in my life. It was a long time ago and my tastes had obviously changed. I’d given up most fast food by now (my mother had become something of a health-nut). I could see the globules of fat drip from each item I picked out of my Styrofoam box.
“Not hungry?” she said through a chicken leg.
“Sorry. I ate so much on the flight.” I’d had a bag of peanuts.
The coffee table had to be pushed against the wall when I pulled the bed out that night. The foot of the bed and the table almost touched. The thing took over this small living room that was to be my personal space for the next two weeks. Though I was more accustomed to the smell, I never forgot the presence of cat pee in the air. I went to sleep looking at the double bolted door that led out to the foyer. It was as if I was sleeping in the front hall at home.
In the days that followed, I spent most of my time watching TV. She taught English during the year and wrote novels in her kitchen in the summer. The apartment only had four small rooms. The living room, the kitchen, her bedroom and the bathroom. For one, I suppose it was fine; with a guest, it was awkward. I was always in the way.
So I sat in front of the tube and she sat in front of her computer, tapping away. Every once in a while I heard the click click of her lighter. Whenever I looked up from the T.V. I could see her sitting in the other room with a sinewy wisp of smoke rising over her shoulder. After two or three I could see a slight haze develop in the air. I wanted to start coughing uncontrollably in protest. I wanted to tell her some statistic about second-hand smoke. I wanted to open a window.
One day we drove to a park with ancient cliff-dwellings and had to walk less than half a mile from the car to the actual site.
“Take it easy. We’re not all sixteen, you know,” she rasped a few minutes in.
She and I both knew that age had nothing to do with it. My father walked two miles every morning at a pace some people would jog. She wasn’t fooling anyone. The first bench we passed obviously had her name on it and I was given a look for passing it so curtly. It wasn’t ten seconds before the Camel Lights came out. Who was this crabby, slothful woman and what had she done with my favorite relative?
“I’ll see you up there,” I said over my shoulder. I didn’t need any more of her smog in my lungs.
My mother called that night and I told her that I missed her food, I missed the house, and most of all, I missed my Aunt Rita.