My stepfather is Mick Jagger for a living. I call him Mick, even though his name is Edward, because that’s what he prefers. “Thanks, girl. It helps me transform,” he says, and he stops there, because that’s exactly what Mick would do.
Bright blue sequins hang from his silk shirt, glittery make-up twinkles below his eyes. He looks like the gypsy who tried to sell me roses in Toledo last year on my high school’s learning trip. It’s the Rolling Stones 1972 tour, in the year 2012, at a club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and these are not the Rolling Stones. They are The Wild Horses, the premier Stones cover band. The get-up is for authenticity. Authenticity, Mick says, clapping his hands together, as if he needs to catch the word and store it for later.
Backstage he kisses my mother for too long. “I’ll be waiting with roses when you’re done,” my mother says. “Cara, I’ll meet you on the floor,” she adds, holding Mick around the waist, talking over her shoulder to me.
She gives him flowers after every show, like it’s a play, where at the end the actors receive bouquets and go home. There will be more shows. She doesn’t get it. Or maybe Mick really enjoys roses.
I slip into the crowd from a side door and stand near the back of the club. The house lights are down, the stage is washed in a red light so thick you can practically reach out and grab a handful. This is the third Wild Horses show I’ve been to, the other two also in Boston last year. Truthfully I only go to spend time in the city, where I’m going to college in the fall to study communication disorders.
Mick and the rest of The Wild Horses amble onto the stage and begin playing “Start Me Up.” From the shows I’ve seen, I’m amazed how the crowd gets so engaged, swaying and shouting like these guys are the actual Stones. I wonder if the real Mick has ever heard The Wild Horses. I imagine he wouldn’t be too pleased. How could there be more than one Mick?
Someone taps me on the shoulder. He’s lanky, and possibly bald, but it’s hard to see in this dark room.
“There’s a bird by the door,” he says over the music.
“What?” I say, glancing at the door I came through a few minutes ago.
He leans closer. “Have you heard them before?” he says, louder.
“No,” I say, and look back at the stage. Mick’s pirouetting with the microphone stand stage right.
Sometimes it’s easier to lie than to explain. The problem is, I can never let lies be. They always seem to balloon like bubblegum, and I want to be the one who pops them.
I confess to him that Mick is my stepfather, and because I feel like it at the moment, I also tell him that my real father works as a paint contractor sixty hours a week, and that I also have other family members who have other jobs. This summer I’m a lifeguard at the pool, I add. I can barely swim but it’s just the town pool, you know.
“Anyone drown?” he asks.
“Just a few,” I say. “Mostly toddlers.”
“I’m Jeb,” he says. “Let me buy you a drink.” Which is how I learn he’s twenty-one.
In the morning he’s asleep when I get up to leave his apartment. If Mom asks where I’ve been I won’t lie. She’ll be uninterested unless Mick is involved in the story. I figure she thinks it’s her motherly duty to ask what I’ve been up to. Not that she cares.
I tiptoe down the steps and close the door of the apartment behind me. It’s raining and the drops feel cool on my skin as I walk to the train station. Cleansing, almost.
I don’t sleep around. I didn’t have sex with Jeb last night. At some point I found myself thinking maybe I like this guy, and in the morning when I was sober—just a light headache—I had the same thought, which is a good sign. It was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a while, my head nestling in the crook of his neck. He was fine with not having sex, I think, but then again you can never tell exactly what someone’s thinking.
I’m thinking about my dad, my real dad, who told me last week at dinner that he’s still in love with Mom, even though she kicked him out a year ago because of Mick. I’m thinking about my dad reaching across the fold-up plastic dinner table, holding my hand, looking me directly in the eyes and saying, “What do I do?”
Jeb and I talk on the phone during the week and he says he’s going to visit me at home. To meet Mick, if that’s all right. He studies journalism at Boston College and wants to do a story on him.
“What’s it like living with a rock star?” he asks.
“He’s not the real Mick, dummy,” I say. I can’t tell if he’s kidding or not.
“Are you sure?” he says. “They could be twins.”
“Jeb, c’mon,” I say. “There’s no story here.”
I tell him to come to the pool instead. It’s August, hot, and swimming weather. I tell him he can pretend to drown and then I’ll save him. He doesn’t like that idea very much.
Jeb shows up at the pool wearing cargo shorts and a white and teal striped dress shirt. He’s holding a notebook in both hands, has a pen tucked behind an ear. Nerd suits him well. He sees me and walks over to the lifeguard tower.
“You’re going swimming in that?” I say, looking at his button-down.
“Maybe I’ll just go naked,” Jeb says. “I thought you could introduce me to your stepdad.”
“He’s at home,” I say. “At my mom’s house. Why would you think he’d be here?”
“I’ve got a car,” he says. “And you’re off your shift in fifteen minutes.”
A girl by the diving board is hopping around, holding her foot and wincing. She crisscrosses down on the concrete. The side of her foot drips blood.
“Fine,” I say, getting up from my perch with the first aid kit, to stop the bleeding.
I owe Jeb nothing. Though sometimes you can tell, I think, when people won’t give up, and it’s better to just get it over with.
We pull into the driveway—a long, S-shaped driveway with as many wrinkles from blacktop crack filler as there are wrinkles on my grandfather’s forehead. “Ants,” I say to Jeb, and he understands.
My mother is bent over in the bed of chrysanthemums when we get out of the car. Lately, she’s been pretending to be a gardener, buying plants from Home Depot and wedging them into the soil at awkward angles. When they die in a few weeks, she buys more. I’ve seen her early in the morning placing cups of cheap beer around the plants as slug bait. The neighbors must think she’s an alcoholic.
“Mom, Jeb,” I say. “Mick home?”
“Nice to meet you, Jeb,” she says, still looking at the flowers. “Edward’s in the studio.”
The studio is what my mom calls our unfinished basement, where Mick has constructed a makeshift recording room out of twin mattresses and old cotton sheets. It’s his laboratory, he calls it. The music is the potion.
The furnace shakes from gravelly bass tones, and I immediately recognize that it’s not a Stones song. Mick’s working on an original, the same one he’s been playing for weeks. When he sees us he turns the receiver down. Not all the way. The music’s still loud.
“Is this okay?” he says, pointing to the speakers. He nods his head to the beat. Mick’s always looking for reassurance in one way or another.
“This is Jeb,” I say. “He came to your last show.”
“Sir,” Jeb says, “I was hoping to ask you a few questions about The Wild Horses.” Mick turns the volume lower. I wonder if he’s ever been called “sir” before.
Jeb’s questions are long and peppered with conjunctions. They contain words like “amalgam,” “pseudoclassical,” and “chromatic.” He asks about the importance of replication in the creative world, about originality, spontaneity, about the thrill of performance. Mick’s answers are brief and forceful, like someone telling their dog to heel.
“Plus, chicks dig Mick,” he says, winking at Jeb. “Always have. Blues, disco, it doesn’t matter.”
I wonder if chicks means Mom—or if chicks means women besides Mom. Either way, my head feels hollow, cavernous. I lean on the washing machine.
“How do you think Mom feels?” I say, cutting Mick off midsentence. Both Mick and Jeb turn toward me. I say it again. “How do you think Mom feels when chicks dig Mick?” It comes out stronger this time.
“Honey,” Mick says. He looks at me as though I had just asked him to explain addition and subtraction. “Cara. Mom’s the only one. The only chick.” He smiles at me. “You can put that in your paper, too,” he says, patting Jeb’s clipboard, still grinning.
Mom’s the only one—I wish he hadn’t said it. Now I’m thinking of when Mick first stepped into our house. “There’s a celebrity I’d like you to meet!” Mom said to me, clinging to her prize. Mick bowed, his long hair grazing the kitchen floor.
“You can call me Mick if you’d like,” he said.
“Aren’t we so lucky to have him here?” I remember Mom saying.
Recently, when Mick’s home and I’m upstairs in my room, I hear them bickering. I hear my mom tell Mick that he’s always away (this isn’t true), and when he’s home he always wants to go out (this is true). Can’t we spend a night in? she says. Watch the news? You’ll play me a song?
The walls are thin in this house, and I hear almost everything. Once I heard Dad’s name—Alden never thought so, Mom said, and my heart sped up and I pressed my ear to the wall, but I couldn’t catch the rest. By the time I snuck downstairs Mick was massaging Mom’s shoulders.
When Jeb is done scribbling in his notepad he thanks Mick, who salutes in return. We start to go, and I feel Mick’s hand on my shoulder. Jeb is already walking up the stairs. I turn around.
“Your father called today,” Mick says.
The tiny hairs on the back of my neck bristle. Dad never calls the house anymore, only my cell.
“I know he comes around here,” Mick says, starting to pace around the basement. “To pick you up, drop you off.” Mick’s hands are clasped together in front of him as he walks. He clears his throat. “I don’t know what to do about it,” Mick says. “About your father coming by.”
I feel like a prisoner of war being interrogated on the whereabouts of my leader. I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.
Mick stops walking around and puts his hands in his pockets. “Cara,” he says. “It’s been a year. Could you please help me out and talk to him?” Then he leans uncomfortably close to my face and whispers, “Maybe when he picks you up you could be waiting at the end of the driveway.”
I hear Jeb whistling at the top of the stairs. Something atonal and jagged. I’m frozen, staring at the floor.
A week ago on Sunday Dad came over to Mom’s house to get me. Mom invited him in for coffee, which Mick wasn’t thrilled about. “Why invite him in if you’re divorced?” Mick asked Mom after Dad left. “He looked like he needed it,” Mom said. “Don’t you think, hon?” she said, to me.
The furnace clicks on. It shouldn’t be on in the summer. Still, I want to feel its heat.
“You think you could talk to him for me?” Mick repeats. He sounds desperate, but I can’t tell if he’s serious or not. “You think you could do that?” he says.
“No, I don’t think so,” I say to Mick, looking him right in the eyes, a tightness beginning to clutch my chest. “I hope Dad calls again tomorrow. I hope he pitches a tent in the front yard.”
I’m up the steps, skipping every other one, and I hear Mick at the bottom of the stairwell calling to me. It doesn’t matter because Jeb and I are out the door, into his car, down the long S-shaped driveway and on the road. Drive anywhere, I say, and I’m glad someone is with me because I feel like a shell of a human. Skeletal, insectile.
Jeb drives with two hands on the wheel and stops at yellow lights. His forearms look soft—I want to reach out and touch them, knead them like dough. I’m glad he’s with me.
I glance at the rearview every few seconds to see if Mick is following us, absurdly. I feel wanted.
“The guy’s got charisma,” Jeb says. “You’re lucky he’s your dad. This will be a great story.”
“Stepdad,” I manage to say. “He’s an asshole.”
“You know what I meant,” Jeb says. He pauses and then adds, “Sorry—I guess he’d be tough to live with.”
We drive past neon, blinking signs and billboards—Lift the Weight, Get it Straight says one, the text printed boldly on a man’s six-pack. Another: Make Cocktails, Not War. The air streams in from the open window and makes me shiver. It’s brisk for a summer evening.
“Should I turn here?” Jeb asks. “What about here?” he says. “Maybe I should drop you at home.”
Home. No, not there. In the darkening sky I’ve lost my sense of direction. There are pale streaks left from the wipers on the windshield. I roll up the window and flip on the heat. The lights of stores along the road band together like sparks popping from a campfire, and I close my eyes. I don’t know exactly where we are or where we’re going, but for now that’s okay.
A few days pass. I’ve been at Dad’s house. He comes in around seven at night, tired, always tired, white clothes spattered with scarlet red paint. He looks like a burn surgeon, post surgery.
I make macaroni, the one thing I can cook, and we eat dinner on the couch. It reminds me of just a couple years ago when Mom, Dad, and I would eat dinner together in the family room at home, at Mom’s house. This was when Dad knew he was going to be moving out, but I didn’t. Apparently they wanted to spend time with me, together, a few last times, even if that meant sitting in silence. We would wait for the Happy Garden delivery man, and when the doorbell rang Mom and Dad would pop up at the same time and shout, “I got it!” and then talk to the kid on the porch as if he were a long lost friend.
When Dad first started sleeping on the couch he told me that it was because he didn’t want to wake Mom when he got up so early for work. “I’m loud in the morning,” he said, which didn’t make much sense to me—I pictured him sitting up in bed, screaming like a chimp, pounding his chest. He was gone in a month. Out of the house, to the other side of town.
Dad tells me that this week he has worked fifty-three hours so far. That’s over three-thousand minutes he says, and I nod. How’s Mom? he says, studying his pasta. What about Edward? How’s Mom’s garden? he says, and I smile this time, because we both know that it’s bound not to last.
Dad’s house, set back from the road, is no more than a small kitchen, a bathroom, a living room large enough for a couch and a TV, and a bedroom. The house is cluttered with half-finished projects—an unsanded chessboard, a neckless guitar he’s been sculpting forever, letters to his brother in Tucson, half-written on the coffee table. When he moved in last year, Dad bought a queen-size mattress. “For my next queen,” I remember him saying to the salesman at Sleepy’s, who chuckled and said, “How about this one? Nice and soft. You’ll share it for years.” A stack of papers—bank statements and help wanted clippings—occupies the other side of the bed.
Quiet exists here, except for the distant whoosh of an occasional car passing on the street behind the stand of trees. There is no constant clang of instruments, no mad musician who lives in the laboratory downstairs. When Dad listens to music on his record player it’s Benny Goodman, Nat King Cole, Miles Davis—muffled, scratchy, calming.
Sleep comes to me quickly, even on the couch. The TV buzzes, but I’m too comfortable to get up and turn it off. It’s a nature program about some invasive species. Bugs that feed on hemlocks. Bugs that came from who knows where, gnawing away until the trees are stripped of everything. Bare-boned.
Jeb drops by the pool on the weekend and swims. I like watching him from the lifeguard tower as he works on his breaststroke. I call out scores, 7.4, 5.6, 6.2, after he dives in. “Eight or higher for a medal!” I yell. Later, when I’m off duty, we kiss in his car by the wooded lot where nobody parks. He smells like a pool. His lips taste like chlorine.
I learn that Jeb is colorblind, has never been outside of the country, that he can rollerblade but not ice skate. I learn that three years ago he flew to the west coast for a girl who broke up with him when he got there. I learn that Jeb is adopted. “Do you ever wonder about them?” I ask. “Your biological parents. What they were like, I mean.”
“Sometimes,” Jeb says, and he leans in for more chlorine kisses.
In his apartment that night when we’re in bed he says, “I don’t know them, so I can’t miss them.” He holds my hand tight. He doesn’t seem so sure.
“Are they alive?” I ask him. “Your parents?”
“Yes,” he says quietly. “My adoptive parents are my parents. They live in New Hampshire. They ski, they’re on the school board in my hometown. They sent me to college. I love them.”
“I wish I was adopted,” I say, rolling over. “You know…” I add, unsure of how to finish my thought.
“No, I don’t,” Jeb says.
It’s the last thing said that night. We lie back to back—I’m wide awake, and I know by his stillness that Jeb is, too. I turn to look at him, his long, slender spine outlined in the dark by the dim blue shine from his computer screen. I bet if I felt his skin with the back of my hand it would be cold. He feels far away right now, even though I know he’s right next to me.
I slip out from under the sheet and tiptoe across the wooden floor onto the porch, closing the door behind me as quietly as possible. The moon is out. It dumps cool light on the street below—a cab cruising by, a lady on the corner squatting down to scratch her dog’s ears. She lights a cigarette.
It’s usually this feeling that keeps me up. Aloneness. Not loneliness—I’ve thought about it a lot. It’s a strange feeling. One that makes me shiver, but not reach for another layer. One that makes me take my phone out of my pocket, place it beside me, but not call anyone. I wonder if Dad feels the same way. I wonder whether it’s aloneness or loneliness for him.
I look down to the street corner. The lady and her dog are gone, her cigarette stub curling a wisp of smoke on the curb.
It’s the night before Mick leaves for his tour down to Virginia and back, and he’s playing piano at too high a tempo. I can tell when he’s nervous, though he’d never admit when he is. The notes come out too fast, the pitch of his voice jumps too high.
Mom is showing him how to appear more like the real Mick again. She purses her lips and sucks in her stomach. Mick stands up and says, “Like this, baby?” Then they kiss like our neighbor’s golden retriever does, and I leave the room. I hate it when he calls her “baby.”
Jeb comes over for dinner and Mom introduces herself, even though they’ve already met. We sit down to eat, the three of us. Mick’s still at the piano, howling away. It’s scallops on rice to the tune of “Brown Sugar.”
“It’s okay,” I say to Mom, almost a whisper so my words get lost in the music. “I don’t need to hear what you’re saying.”
“What?” she says.
Mom doesn’t cook much anymore since Mick always wants to go out to eat, but tonight the food isn’t bad. The scallops, caramelized brown from the pan, taste buttery and sweet.
Near the end of the meal the doorbell rings. Mick, still at the piano, hasn’t heard it, but Mom gets up to answer the door. I lean over and touch Jeb on the shoulder.
“Thanks for coming,” I say, and I mean it. “You’ve made the ratio of normal to crazy people better tonight.”
“Of course,” Jeb says.
When Mom comes back to the table her face is pale. She starts collecting the plates without saying anything.
“Who was it?” Mick asks. He’s finally stopped singing, and the house seems unusually quiet.
“Nobody,” Mom says. “Wrong address.”
Catching Mom’s glance, I know exactly who it was.
“Wrong address?” Mick asks from the piano.
“Wrong address,” Mom repeats. “Edward, come get some food.”
I can feel Mick staring at me.
“It was Alden, wasn’t it?” Mick says, standing up from the piano bench.
Mom drops the stack of dirty dishes into the sink. “Edward, can we talk about this—”
“That’s it,” Mick says. “I’m going to straighten this out.” He strides to the front door, chest puffed up. He grabs his car keys from the wall. Mom’s starting to cry. Jeb’s sitting rigid in his chair. I feel the blood rushing through my veins.
Mick yanks the door open, and suddenly all of us are out onto the porch, Mom crying, calling out for him to stop, Jeb next to me, his hands stuffed in his pockets, and me, staring down the long, S-shaped driveway, past Mom’s flower bed with the slanted chrysanthemums, at Dad, who is leaning on the hood of his truck, staring right back.
I think about tackling Mick, but he stops on the lawn.
They look at each other, Dad and Mick, and Mom’s calling, Please go, Alden, please leave, and Dad’s just standing there, not moving, leaning on the hood of his truck.
“What do you want?” Mick shouts.
“This was my house,” Dad says, pointing at the ground, which is the wrong thing to have said. His voice sounds shaky.
“Please, Alden,” Mom says.
But it’s all over after a few more shouts and pointed fingers. Dad retreating into his car, backing out of the driveway, nearly running over Mom’s flower bed. Mom and Mick stomping back inside, slamming the door. Me, standing with Jeb on the front lawn, wondering what the hell just happened.
This time Jeb lets me drive his car. Rather, I take the driver’s seat and ask for the keys. I blaze through yellow lights with two fingers on the wheel. Jeb doesn’t ask me where I’m going. He knows.
I tear down Dad’s dirt road and brake hard in front of his house. When I get out of the car, Jeb stays seated. “I’ll be here,” I hear him say as I shut the car door. I try to shut it loudly, loud enough for Dad to hear me coming from inside. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to say, but I have to talk to him.
Dad’s on the couch, watching the same program about pests that came from Asia in the twenties. He must have recorded it. His car keys are next to him on the cushion, and he’s still wearing his work clothes. Though he doesn’t look at me, I know he heard me come in. The creases under his eyes look especially pronounced.
“What did you say to her when she answered the door?” I ask. “To Mom.”
Dad takes a deep breath, holds the air in his cheeks, exhales. I walk over and sit down next to him. He smells like fresh paint and pinewood. “Dad?”
“Cara,” he says, turning toward me. “Never try and compete with a celebrity.” Dad’s smiling now. “I told her to be happy with Mick, that she’s lucky to have found someone else.” Dad hugs me, his wood-smelling sweatshirt pressed against my cheek. “I’m so happy to have you, Cara,” he says.
I realize now that I don’t want Dad to be with Mom. But for Dad to tell me that he isn’t in love with her anymore is like he’s lost the game. He’s given up. Maybe it’s because I just don’t want to see him alone on the couch anymore, watching taped nature programs still in his paint-coated clothes. “Since 1997, the main approach has turned to biological control,” the narrator of the program says. On the screen, tiny blue insects crawl over a pinecone. I wonder where exactly they came from. I wonder how they got here.
Outside Jeb is waiting for me. He asks me if everything is all right. He asks me where I want to go. The truth is, I don’t know. I kiss him and try to taste the chlorine. Drive anywhere, I say.
We drive to the pool. It’s just past eight and the light in the sky is quickly fading. No one is around, and as I click the key into the metal gate Jeb tells me to wait, and he runs back to the car. He pulls his bathing suit out of the trunk.
“Now?” I say. “I don’t have my suit.”
“No one’s here,” Jeb says.
“If I’m naked you’re naked,” I say.
He thinks for a moment and then says, “Okay. Fair.” He tosses his swimsuit back into the trunk.
Slipping in, the pool water buoys me—still warm from the afternoon sun and the heater that’s kept on eighty. I don’t think about the possibility of getting caught right now, or my father, or my mother, or Mick. Only the gentle hum of the fluorescent light fixed on the gate. And Jeb, who peels off his pants slowly and awkwardly by the edge of the pool.
Finally, undressed and glowing from the light, Jeb steps onto the diving board. He pauses, takes two paces forward, bends his knees and cannonballs into the water, the splash showering the top of my head. As he surfaces, I swim over to him.
“9.4,” I say, smiling.
“You think?” he says. “Could have tucked the knees a little tighter.”
I relax my body, fill my lungs with air and float on my back. The air smells antiseptic. Jeb swims underneath me, nudges the top of his head into me as he surfaces. His hair tickles my spine. I laugh. It’s good to be here, right now.
Jon Simmons is a writer originally from coastal Maine. He graduated from Emerson College with a BFA in fiction, where he won the Academy of American Poets Prize. His stories and poems have been published or are forthcoming in Digital Americana, Litro, and Snail Mail Review, among other literary magazines.