She sits on her front porch, one hand draped across the paunch of her belly, the other holding a cigarette. It’s lit, but she just holds it, letting the end of it rest on her bottom lip. Lately, whenever she tries to smoke properly, her lungs fill up and the smoke stays trapped, and she ends up coughing and spitting with tears filling her eyes. Her daughter would probably tell her that that’s her body’s way of telling her it’s time to quit, advice she’s been handing out to Violet since she saw a picture of a smoker’s lungs in her biology book in ninth grade.
The porch is dark, a tiny sliver of moon in the sky. With it dark like this, she can pretend she’s younger, sneaking a cigarette while Harold wrangles the girls down for bed. She can almost hear the three of them inside, Harold’s loud voice acting out Green Eggs and Ham or The Princess and the Frog, changing his voice to match each character. She used to love listening to his rendition of the witch in Snow White, though sometimes, the voice reminded her too much of her own.
They moved into the neighborhood before the girls, before the thing was finished, when the houses around them were either empty lots or wooden frames looming like beached whale bones. Everything had such potential then. Look how close the school is, when we have kids, they can walk! This backyard! When you get that raise, a pool is the first thing to go in. Each night, Harold would sit in the living room reading and she would walk the empty streets, the smell of sawdust and dried concrete clinging to her clothes. She loved the half-framed homes the most: the pipes sticking out, half-built staircases that led to nowhere, walls you could walk through. When the sheets of drywall would go up, she would find herself missing the bigness of the thing. “They’re just houses, Vi,” Harold would tell her when she got home. “They were always supposed to be houses.” He was never any good at making her feel better.
Tonight, cars line both sides of the street, the light of the streetlights bouncing off each windshield. Earlier that evening she had had to stop a boy from parking in her driveway. He hadn’t seen her sitting there on the porch, and when she had come down the steps shouting, the boy had taken a step back like she had shoved him. Then, instead of apologizing he had asked, “Why? Are you going somewhere tonight?” and as an afterthought, “Ma’am.” Then, he had run his eyes from her unwashed hair falling from a clip to her crushed velvet housecoat with the worn-out elbows to her bare, swollen ankles and had raised his both his eyebrows. Before she could answer he had gotten back into his car, whipping it into reverse so fast that he had left streaks of blackened rubber on the street in front of her house. She would be complaining to the Homeowner’s Association about that one. It would probably take them weeks to come clean it off.
The boy had then parked with the tail end of his bumper hanging into her driveway, hopped out, given her a big wave and jogged across her yard to the neighbor’s door. She had had half a mind to back her own car out and smash his rear fender. It would be well within her rights as his car was on her property, but the thought of searching the kitchen drawers again for her car keys stopped her. She had been searching for them for days, tearing the whole house apart looking for them, but nothing. She didn’t want to call her oldest daughter, who had the spare key, because she would, would once again, insist on her moving in with her and her husband, a man who vacuumed every day even though it was only the two of them living in the house. He insisted that it “made a difference,” whatever that meant.
From the neighbor’s yard, she hears shouts of, “Chug! Chug! Chug!” and splashing water and girls’ screaming falsetto laughs. The smell of burning meat and chlorine mixes with the smoke from her cigarette. From her spot on the porch, she sees two teenagers come around the side of her yard, arms and legs so entangled she’s not sure how they can walk. One is murmuring something low and deep and the other is laughing and saying, “no, no, no,” in a way that even to her sounds like yes, yes, yes. Once they’re under the streetlight she can see that it’s the same boy from earlier. He scoops the very thin, very tall girl that he’s with into the passenger seat of his car before turning towards where she is sitting and giving a little salute. At this, she takes a deep drag from her cigarette, but she can still hear his laughter over her own coughing. She desperately wishes that she had smashed the end of his car when she’d had the chance.