Rules of Visitation
On their way to Lompoc for the first prison visit with her dad, Emily and her aunt Sylvia stopped for something to eat. They picked a coffee shop right off the freeway called The Squirrel, which Emily found funny, though she didn’t tell Sylvia. Not ha ha funny. More like ironic funny. If anything had annoyed Emily’s father before he’d gone to Lompoc, it was the squirrels that destroyed the green lawn around their house in Danville. Back in the normal time, Emily thought, the time before this time.
In the fall her father kept a metal basket filled with tennis balls next to the back door for the sole purpose of pelting the squirrels. Whenever he saw a squirrel digging into the sod, he pitched a ball at it. “Drat you!” he shouted. Or, “Scram, you good-for-nothing son of a gun!” Her father thought swearing was vulgar; he did not curse. His aim was terrible. He never made contact. The squirrels seemed to mock him, standing on their haunches, tails flicking into airy question marks, their eyes like beads of jelly.
Emily suspected her father missed the squirrels on purpose. He wanted to scare them, but wouldn’t admit that was all he wanted to do--like when he played checkers or tic-tac-toe with her when she was small and always let her win. Even now, at fifteen, she guessed he sometimes botched his game in chess or cards so she could come off the victor.
The squirrels were something they could talk about during the visit at Lompoc, if she went inside. In her head she added it to her list. She thought she had a decent number by now--her Driver’s Ed class, the neighbor’s Labradoodle puppy, her application to be a counselor-in-training--all topics that had nothing to do with anything that mattered.
In the restaurant's parking lot she and Sylvia weaved between older model cars, some with dashboards strewn with trash, crushed soda cans, fast-food wrappers, sun-faded magazines. A few had magnetic yellow ribbons stuck to their sides, Support Our Troops. Emily skirted around a car with a loose bumper held in place with blue painter’s tape. A sticker on the fender read: “Nobody’s Ugly at Two AM.”
From the looks of the cars, Emily figured The Squirrel would be a dump. She was glad. When she was in a miserable mood, if it was sunny instead of rainy, she felt that much worse. But if it rained, she felt soothed, grateful the weather was willing to be dismal along with her.
The Squirrel was set up like an old-fashioned diner, with a long lunch counter along one wall, a row of booths along the other, and a tall revolving glass pie case next to the cash register. Emily and Sylvia slid into an empty booth. The torn red vinyl on the upholstered seat exposed tufts of yellow foam stuffing. The unripped spot where Emily sat was still warm from the person before her. The leftover body heat felt good, but the idea of absorbing a stranger’s warmth made her feel squeamish and she scooted to a cooler spot.
A man passed by their booth, and Emily saw that something was wrong with his face. His skin was white and pink, shiny and puffy from grafts. On the left side of his head, the cartilage of his ear was gone. All that remained was a sunken cavity that looked like a whirlpool of water swirling down a drain. Yet you could still tell he’d once been a handsome man. His bright eyes, the way he held his body, the few parts of his face that hadn’t been touched. They all let you know he’d been someone to look at. Now he was someone you tried not to see, someone you’d have to learn to look at without flinching inside. She wondered what he saw when he looked at himself in the mirror. Emily averted her gaze from the man’s burned face as he paid at the cash register and stroked her hands against the smooth skin of her cheeks.
From the waitress she ordered a coke and a tuna sandwich on toasted wheat, which turned out to be delicious. The tuna did not have too much mayo, which was always a risk with tuna salad. Her appetite had dwindled when she’d first learned about her dad. But as time passed food had become something pure and incorruptible for her to enjoy, and it seemed essential to preserve things like that for herself, a kind of survival stake. She removed the cellophane-fringed toothpick from the second half of her sandwich. Sylvia reached across the table and picked it up, twirling it between her fingers.
“You don’t have to go inside if you don’t want to,” Sylvia said.
“I can go in alone.”
Sylvia had ordered tomato soup but wasn’t eating it. The bowl had been steaming when it arrived, but it was cooling and a thickening layer coated the surface.
“Which way are you leaning?” Sylvia said. She put the toothpick down and dipped her spoon into the bowl, piercing the forming skin. Liquid soup poured through.
“I can’t decide,” Emily said.
“That’s okay,” Sylvia said. “You still have time.”
Sylvia was the one who told Emily what had happened with her father. When the news came, she had been in Ms. DeMatteo’s tenth-grade English class, fifth period, right after lunch. She had just presented her book jacket assignment to the class. They’d had to come up with a synopsis of their books that would arouse readers’ interest without giving away the story. Emily’s book was The Scarlet Letter, one of the books on the list of classics assigned for the year. Ms. DeMatteo had encouraged them to be as creative as possible. Emily’s synopsis was a letter from Hester Prynne written at the end of her life to her grown daughter Pearl. The word for this was epistolary, which Ms. DeMatteo had taught them was a literary technique for telling a story in the form of letters.
Reading it made her nervous, but she was also proud of what she’d written and wanted to share it. Her heart pulsed in a rapid beat that was pleasant and unpleasant at the same time.
The class gave her an obligatory round of applause after she was done. She was relieved it was over and felt herself start to calm down. It had gone well, better than she’d expected. She could tell from the intensity of the listening while she’d been in front of the class, an intensity that had created a deeper silence in the room. As she took her seat, she felt light and happy, and reminded herself to keep her smile mild and humble.
“One question,” Ms. DeMatteo said. “Did you write that yourself?”
“Yes.” Emily’s heart started to race again. “I have the book right here. You can see.” She reached inside her satchel.
“That’s not necessary,” Mrs. DeMatteo said.
And then Emily was furious. Mrs. DeMatteo didn’t think she was smart enough to write what she’d read to the class. Worse, she’d thought Emily was a cheater, but she wasn’t going to let Emily prove her honesty by reading the actual book jacket. Even if she got a good grade, which she figured was pretty much guaranteed now, Mrs. DeMatteo’s question tainted it. Emily rubbed her fingers across the plastic library book cover and tried to keep a neutral expression on her face.
After two more students shared their book jackets, a secretary from the office delivered a note. It was written on a green piece of paper. The secretary handed it to Mrs. DeMatteo, who read it quickly, and then gave it to Emily.
It said: No one has been hurt. Everyone is safe. Come to the office with your belongings. Your aunt Sylvia has come to take you home. The whole room was quiet as Emily gathered her things together. “It’s a personal matter,” Mrs. DeMatteo said in the hush. The secretary walked Emily past the office to the front of the school.
Sylvia was waiting for Emily in her car on the circular drive. She was wearing dark sunglasses and a red cardigan that buttoned up the front with glossy red buttons the size of pearls. She leaned over and gave Emily a kiss on the cheek when she got in. It was comforting to see Sylvia looking like her usual self. “I’ll explain in a minute,” she said. She drove up the road to the ridge overlooking the valley and parked the car, propping her sunglasses on top of her head after she turned off the engine. They had a view of the high school down below, its rectangular blue swimming pool and the red oval of the track, all of the buildings and playing fields spread out beneath them like pieces in a patchwork quilt.
Sylvia turned to face her with her eyebrows scrunched so that creases appeared on her forehead. “Emily, it’s about your father. He’s okay, but he’s in trouble. He’s been arrested. Your mom asked me to come and tell you.” It sounded like she had rehearsed these words; they came out smooth and fast and fake. Then she gave Emily an article, not from the newspaper, but printed from a website. “You should read this,” Sylvia said. “I want you to know what’s being said.”
The piece of paper she handed Emily showed a color photo of her father looking bewildered and sad. Emily had never seen her father with such a dejected expression on his face. Respected Businessman Caught in Child-Sex Sting the headline read. The article said that her father, a successful pharmaceutical executive, had flown from San Francisco to Burbank for the purpose of having sex with a little girl. A girl who was said to be only seven years old. All of it had been arranged through an internet sting, with a law enforcement officer posing as the little girl’s mother. He’d been arrested at the airport in Burbank. In his suitcase he’d had a Bratz doll, a dozen glow-in-the-dark bracelets, and petroleum jelly. Emily froze. If it were not for this final information about the suitcase, and the things inside it, she would not have believed what was written; she would have thought it was a mistake. But the part about the suitcase and the things inside it made her think it could somehow be true. She felt a huge pressure in her chest, as if her lungs were filling with weights.
When she finished reading the article, she folded it in half and then in half again and put it in her lap. She didn’t know what to say to Sylvia. She flipped down the sun visor and looked at herself in the small mirror. She was not crying. She squeezed her eyes shut, wishing she could force tears. She felt sick, light-headed and queasy, but she wanted to feel sicker, sick enough to throw up. The pressure in her chest increased; her lungs felt swollen and heavy. She rubbed her fingertips against her thumbs until they warmed.
The words started to come to her. Pervert was one. Sicko another. Scum of the earth. Pedophile darted amidst all the other words, and this was the word that Emily tried hardest to banish from her mind. Her father, whom she loved and who had made her feel loved for all of her fifteen years. She reached for the charm she wore on a chain around her neck every day. The charm was an old-fashioned key made out of gold. Her father had given her this necklace for her tenth birthday, telling her it was to remind her that she held the key to her own happiness. She turned to Sylvia, wanting her aunt to tell her what she should do, how she should feel.
Sylvia was her mother’s younger sister. She was an ACLU lawyer and gay, used to the difficult. She had defended freedom of speech for neo-Nazi racist skinheads. Her father argued with Sylvia, calling her strident and stubborn and a troublemaker who was too smart for her own good. But if anyone knew what to do, if anyone could help her father, it would be Sylvia.
“Listen,” Sylvia said. “It’s bad. It’s terrible. But I want you to remember that he didn’t do anything to anyone in the real world. There was no actual girl. She didn’t exist. It was all fabricated. They came to him, not the other way around. So it’s possibly entrapment. But the most important thing for you, Emily, is to remember there was no living, breathing girl. It was all made up.”
As Sylvia spoke, the made-up little girl became a real little girl in Emily’s mind: Keiko Yamamoto, who was five years old and lived three houses down the street from Emily. Emily had been babysitting for her ever since Keiko was an infant, first as a mother’s helper with Keiko’s mom staying home to supervise, and then by herself after she had become comfortable watching her alone. When she was almost one, Keiko had started to walk for the first time on an evening when Emily had been sitting for her. Keiko was asleep in her crib when her parents came home later that night. Emily didn’t tell Keiko’s parents that she had started to walk while they’d been out, not wanting them to feel they’d missed out on witnessing her first steps. They were excited to tell her Keiko had started to walk the next time she babysat for them. It was their news to tell, not hers. She’d been careful not to take that away from them.
Now, Emily thought of Keiko in the flesh, naked, fresh from the bath, of rubbing her small body dry with her pink towel, its hood embroidered to look like the face of a cat, two triangular terry cloth ears sticking out of the crown. She imagined her father giving Keiko a Bratz doll and the glow-in-the-dark bracelets; she saw him pulling them out of his blue carry-on suitcase, handing them to her, slipping the bracelets onto her slender arms. Emily opened the car door and leaned out into the cool air down toward the asphalt, letting her hair fall around her head like a curtain, wishing she knew how to make herself sick.
Emily wasn’t friends with Roberta Hessler. But they had to stand in line next to each other for roll call in P.E., and they had been assigned lockers next to each other in the changing room. Emily Hawkins, Roberta Hessler. Because of alphabetical order they had gotten to know each other.
Before they’d had P.E. together, Emily had known Roberta only by reputation. She was known as an easy girl, a druggie girl, a pretty girl who wore too much makeup and gave it up too fast. Someone you didn’t want to get close to. More than once on the bathroom stalls at school Emily had read graffiti that said, “Hessler is a hussy” or “Whole Lot of Hessler: Over Three-Billion Served.” There was a rumor that Roberta had been involved in a gang bang during a keg party--she’d passed out and a group of guys had taken turns with her in the seclusion of the pool house, apart from the main party. “Who were the guys?” Emily asked. Nobody seemed to know.
One afternoon in seventh period P.E., Roberta had asked Emily to help her. “I don’t want to get busted,” she said. “I cut school earlier. I was drinking.”
“What can I do?” Emily said.
“Just don’t leave me alone.”
Emily stayed close to Roberta’s side as they did jumping jacks and stretches and then ran the required mile around the track. Roberta didn’t seem that out of it, and it wasn’t difficult for Emily to keep an eye on her. In fact, Emily felt a little in awe of Roberta’s daring. Drinking during the day and then coming back to school--that took a lot of nerve. Emily would never have the guts to do that, even if she wanted to.
Roberta claimed she owed Emily after that day in P.E. “Someday,” she said, “I’ll pay you back.” Emily shrugged away the offer.
Her first Monday back at school after her dad’s arrest, midmorning, Emily had been summoned to the office of Mrs. Blakely, the school psychologist. Mrs. Blakely said she wanted to check-in with her, see how she was doing.
“I’m doing alright,” Emily said. “My aunt’s helping out.” Since the arrest, Emily’s mom had withdrawn to the master suite and taken to bed. She hadn’t talked to Emily about what had happened, and Sylvia had taken charge. “Give your mom space,” Sylvia said. “I’m here for you. Until she can be.”
The conversation with Mrs. Blakely was uncomfortable from the start, but then she asked Emily if her dad had ever been inappropriate with her. No one had suggested this. Not her mother. Not her aunt.
“No,” Emily said, feeling her lungs become heavy.
Nothing like that had ever happened.
Please, please, don’t think that about me, Emily wanted to implore Mrs. Blakely, wishing she had the power to convince Mrs. Blakely of this one absolute truth.
Mrs. Blakely looked at Emily with searching eyes. “Sometimes,” she said, skepticism creeping into her voice, “we bury memories. If you recall anything you’d like to share, please feel free to come to me.”
By the time gym period arrived on Friday afternoon, Emily couldn’t believe she’d endured the week, withstanding so many embarrassed, pitying glances and sudden, awkward silences. She felt as if she were casting a spell as she walked through the corridors of the high school, a spell that rolled like a wave in front of her, making faces fall and tying up tongues. She thought of the shunning of Hester Prynne and penned a small red “A” on the inside of her wrist with a sharpie. It was a relief to walk into the locker room and have Roberta’s carefree smile greet her.
“How’s it going?” Roberta asked as they changed into their P.E. uniforms.
With everyone else, Emily lied and said, “Okay.” Or else she said nothing and shrugged. She didn’t like spending time with her usual circle of friends, the ones who knew her best, and knew her dad. These were the girls who’d been coached by him along with Emily for basketball and softball, the ones he’d driven in car pools and given awards to at end-of-season team dinners, always identifying one thing each player was best at so no one went without a prize. She sat silently in the quad with her longtime friends during lunch, feeling burdened by their concern and solicitude.
“No one treats me like me anymore,” Emily said to Roberta. “Except you.”
“And we don’t even know each other.” Roberta laughed. “You need to blow off steam. Come with me to my friend Victor’s after school.”
It turned out Victor was in his late twenties and lived alone in a house on top of the ridge on a piece of property dotted with mature live oaks, their branches twisting into gnarled patterns that reminded Emily of arthritic hands. On the drive to his house, Roberta told Emily that his parents had been killed when their small plane crashed en route to Palm Springs; Victor’s dad had been the pilot, his mom the only passenger. Victor had inherited their house and gotten a lot of money from insurance, enough so that he didn’t have to work to earn a living. Roberta had met him a year ago when she’d asked him to buy her beer outside a liquor store. He bought her a twelve-pack instead of the six-pack she’d requested and then invited her over to his house to drink.
“So he’s like an orphan?” Emily said.
“He’s not a kid, so he’s not an orphan,” Roberta said.
From his driveway they walked along a path of slate stepping-stones to the front door, passing by a koi pond with orange fish lurking in the dark water beneath lily pads.
“Tell him you’re a senior and eighteen,” Roberta said before she pressed the bell. “You pretend you’re older than you are, he’ll pretend he believes you.”
When he answered the door, Victor stared into Emily’s eyes and said, “Welcome to my castle.”
As they followed him down a hallway, Emily noticed he was shorter than both she and Roberta, with the muscled arms and full chest of someone who lifted weights. He had shiny copper-colored hair and his face and arms were flecked with patchy caramel freckles that were so dense they almost made him look like he had a suntan. He wore a green-and-yellow Oakland A’s baseball jersey, painter’s pants, and white leather tennis shoes. It was hard to believe he was in his twenties. He seemed younger than half the boys in Emily’s class.
Victor lit a joint after they’d settled themselves on the living room couches. Roberta joined him, but Emily brushed the joint away. She’d tried weed a few times at parties and didn’t like how disoriented and spacey it made her feel.
Along one of the walls a row of embroidered and patched blue jeans were displayed hanging from a long brass pole that looked like a curtain rod. They seemed to be relics from the sixties or seventies, pants someone had actually worn. Emily went from pair to pair, examining the elaborate butterflies, yin-yang symbols, and intricate mosaics of fabric and leather stitched onto the soft, faded denim.
Victor laughed when Emily refused the joint the second time it was passed around. He walked over to her and gently exhaled a lungful of smoke in front of her face. He moved his head back and forth so the smoke came out in a zigzag billow. Emily turned her head away and cleared the smoke with her hand.
“Don’t mess with her,” Roberta said. “She’s not like that.”
“Like what?” Victor said.
“What are we like?” He jumped in the air, tapping the ceiling above the jean display with his hand. Emily looked up and noticed a light smattering of oily marks in different places on the white ceiling.
“You know how we are,” Roberta said, rolling her eyes at Victor. “Not innocent lambies.”
Victor looked at Emily. “Neither is she.” He jumped up and tapped the ceiling again, leaving a faint greasy smudge where his hand had touched.
Victor was right. There were times when Emily had been bad. When she was very little she used to secretly put her hand in her underwear between her legs and then tell her friends to smell the perfume on her fingers, sticking her hand close to their noses. “Mmmm,” they’d said. “I like your perfume.” She’d known it was nasty.
One winter vacation they’d taken their cat Shelby up to Tahoe with them. When Emily was alone in their cabin, her parents off skiing early one morning, she’d thrown Shelby into a deep snowdrift and then dug through the snow to rescue him. She’d done that a couple of times, thrilling at the rush she got when she flung the cat up in the air and saw his gray body disappear into the depth of white. She could not explain why she had wanted to terrify Shelby, any more than she could explain why he still rubbed against her and purred and slept on her lap. Just last year she had shoplifted a shirt that she wore a lot, had even worn for her school yearbook photo. People liked the shirt and asked where she’d gotten it, and when she said the name of the pricey boutique, they were impressed.
“Leave her alone, Victor,” Roberta said.
After the two of them were done with the joint, Victor wanted to take a sauna in the steam house in the backyard.
“Join us?” Roberta asked Emily.
“I can’t,” Emily said. “I don’t have a suit.”
Roberta and Victor laughed.
“Next time,” Roberta said.
Through the living room windows, she watched them walk across the backyard deck to the small redwood-shingled sauna house. They stripped bare and hung their clothes from some hooks on the wall, grabbing beach towels to wrap around themselves from another set of hooks. Before Victor followed Roberta into the sauna house, he turned toward the window where Emily sat. He let his towel drop open and waved at her, and Emily stared at his naked body, forcing herself not to look away from him as he smiled at her. He wrapped his towel back around himself and put his finger to his lips and shook his head back and forth, shushing her.
Sylvia was at the house when Emily got home from Victor’s. She and Emily’s mom were sitting on the couch in the living room, a room that was only used for parties, holidays. Emily didn’t need to look at their faces to know something was wrong. She thought of Miss Clavel in the Madeline storybooks running down the halls looking for trouble, worried something was not right. “Good night little girls! Thank the lord you are well! And now go to sleep!” said Miss Clavel. Emily loved the Madeline books, and her father had paid her ten dollars each time she learned to recite one of them from memory.
“What is it?” Emily asked.
Everything in her house had become suspect since the arrest. Every frown her mother frowned, every sigh she sighed, every ring of the telephone, every visit from her aunt. She was on constant alert, and she felt tired from the vigilance. At Victor’s with Roberta, she had been vigilant too, but it had been exciting. She had wanted to see what the two of them would do next, not feared it. She had watched them both wash up in the outdoor shower after the sauna, lathering their bodies with soap and shampoo, naked Victor waving to her again, shaping his foamy hair into a pair of devil’s horns sprouting out of his head. She could tell he was showing off for her.
“Say something,” Emily said to her mother and aunt. She waited. There had been a problem with her father’s arraignment and bail hearing because of an issue about venue. Sylvia had explained it, and Emily had pretended it made sense to her, though it hadn’t. Emily had been told that the problem was almost resolved, meaning her father could come home any day now. “Tell me,” Emily said.
Her mother didn’t answer her question, but Sylvia did. “Your dad’s bail has been set, and we’ve secured the bond, but he doesn’t want to be released. He wants to serve time pending trial.”
Emily felt these words like needles in her chest. Her father wanted to give up. Why else wouldn’t he come home?
“We can still visit him,” Sylvia said.
“I won’t,” Emily’s mom said. “I can’t.”
Emily could have predicted her mother would say that. Holed up in the house for weeks now, her mom seemed to be either weepy or sleeping most of the time, and she was taking prescription pills Sylvia had given her. Emily had snuck into her mother’s bathroom and read the labels on the amber plastic bottles. One was Xanax; the other was Valium. In the state her mother was in, she wasn’t worth talking to.
Emily put her hands over her eyes so she did not have to look at the faces of her mother and her aunt. She did not want to see the blue veins under her mother’s eyes, or the black circles under Sylvia’s. For a moment, she wished she never had to lay eyes on her father again. That all of this would be over. That he would be over. She thought of telling this to Roberta and Victor. Telling the two of them and no one else. Emily took her hands from her eyes.
“Do you want to see him, Emily?” Sylvia said. “I’m going. You could come with me.”
The next Friday Emily returned to Victor’s with Roberta. This time when they smoked weed she laughed when Victor blew smoke in her face, and she breathed it in, holding it in her lungs where it seemed to lighten the pressure that now lived constantly within them. She still refused to inhale from the joint itself.
Roberta took a zippered leather pouch out of her purse after they finished smoking. “I want to make you up,” she said. She sat next to Emily on the couch and began placing compacts and brushes and tubes on the glass coffee table. She turned to Emily and traced a line down the center of Emily’s bare face with her finger. “Look,” she said turning to Victor. “You see this virgin face?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I see it.”
“I’m going to make it disappear.”
Roberta dabbed beige foundation in dots on Emily’s face, smoothing it over Emily’s skin with her fingertips and blending it in with a small dark yellow sea sponge. The pressure of her fingers and the sponge were soft and lulling, making Emily feel relaxed and sleepy. Roberta leaned close as she worked and beneath the scent of the weed, Emily smelled floral deodorant masking faint body odor.
After the foundation, Roberta tickled blush and powder on Emily’s cheeks and nose with soft-haired brushes. She stroked plum shadow on Emily’s eyelids and thick, cakey black mascara onto her lashes. Last was the lipstick. She took a bright red shade and with skillful swipes filled in Emily’s top and bottom lips with color. She told Emily to rub her lips together, then she applied another coat of lipstick, and on top of that a layer of shiny liquid gloss. Victor maneuvered around them snapping pictures. He thrust his camera between them, showing them the frozen pictures displayed on the back screen. The bright, glowing images made Emily feel as if she were watching herself on the tiniest television.
When Roberta was done, Emily looked at herself in a small folding mirror Roberta handed her. She couldn’t see her whole face in the mirror at once, so she looked at herself in parts. Her eyes. Her cheeks. Her mouth. All made-up.
“Do you like it?” Roberta asked.
“It doesn’t look like me,” Emily said.
Outside a gray drizzle had begun to fall. The sky was darkening. A car passed by and flicked on its headlights. The beams flashed across the yard as the car veered along the curve in the road.
“A sauna,” Victor said. “You promised you would, next time you came.” He reached out and rubbed Emily’s shoulder. She hadn’t promised anything. But whether she had or she hadn’t didn’t matter because she wanted to now.
When she’d shoplifted from the boutique, she’d searched the fabric for a plastic security tag in the dressing room and then tucked the shirt in her bag when she didn’t find one. She didn’t think it was legal for the store to have cameras in the dressing rooms, but she didn’t know for sure. She’d waited for the buzzers to go off when she exited the store, waited for clerks to follow her out the door and accuse her, but no one had. She’d felt the same scared excitement that day on the sidewalk outside the store that she felt right now.
As the three of them stripped down outside the sauna, she kept her eyes to herself, wondering whether Victor was watching her. If he looked, she hoped he liked what he saw, and she hoped that he looked. She sat next to him on the wooden bench inside the sauna, wrapped in a bright orange and white towel. Roberta was there too, but she was quiet, all three of them were quiet. They took turns pouring water over the hot rocks to fill the room with steam. The water hissed on the rocks as it drizzled from the wooden ladle. The makeup Roberta had applied to Emily’s face began to melt and drip in the misty heat. Victor took the corner of his towel and stroked her face, cleaning it.
Then he leaned toward her and gave her a long, closed-mouth kiss. When he pulled away, his lips were the same color as hers, coated in lipstick. She reached out and touched his lips and wiped the waxy, shiny color onto her finger, and showed it to him. He let out a soft pleased moan and pulled her finger into his mouth and bit it gently. And then she thought it was dangerous to have kissed him, that it was unsafe to be alone with him here in this house in this sauna with only Roberta, and that she did not know where it might lead, or who this man really was, but at the same time she thought, I do not care.
A few miles from the correction facility in Lompoc, Sylvia turned into a McDonald’s and parked. She pressed a button to spray fluid onto the windshield and then flicked on the wipers to clean the insect-splattered glass. When the blurry smear cleared, through the clean windshield Emily glimpsed a squirrel scampering along the fence that bordered the parking lot, its tawny body bouncing in arcs, its puffy tail streaming behind. She watched the squirrel run to the end of the fence and then leap into the parking lot. A passing car braked suddenly to avoid running it over. Pausing in front of the car, the squirrel darted first right, then left, then right again, and then rushed back to where it had come from.
Emily’s dad had hit a deer with his car a couple of years ago, killing it. He’d described the accident to Emily, telling her how he’d dragged the deer to the side of the road by its hooves. It had been a young buck with fuzzy barely-formed antlers. It was the only time Emily had seen her father close to tears. The insurance company had told him not to wash his car, because they needed to examine it for proof that he’d hit the deer, to inspect it for animal hair and blood. But the next day he’d soaped the car with buckets of sudsy water, rubbing the sponge meticulously over every corner and angle of the car, then drying the car by hand with towels.
They could talk about the deer. She added it to her list. But she didn’t want to talk about it if it would upset him. Would it?
Or she didn’t have to see him at all. She could go inside the McDonald’s and wait for Sylvia to return from the visit, as Sylvia had told her she could. She could erase him, as it seemed her mother had already done. She thought that if she wanted to erase him, her father would let her.
When they turned into the parking lot for the Special Housing Unit at Lompoc, Emily knew she could not forgo the visit, even if she had changed her mind on the drive from the McDonald’s to the prison. The rules of visitation prohibited anyone from remaining in a parked car outside the facility. Emily had studied the copy of the rules Sylvia had given her.
Within the grounds, Emily saw things she had expected to see: the towers and walls and fences topped with coils of concertina razor wire. Those were the things you saw in movies and on television. And she saw things she had never thought about at all. The special netting to protect birds from electrocution on the high-voltage fence. The playground where the small children of inmates could swing and slide and climb during their visits.
The rules forbid blue or khaki clothing. Blue was color of the inmates’ uniforms; the guards wore khaki. The rules required women to wear bras, but not underwire bras. The wire could set off the metal detectors, requiring a pat down. Emily had dressed carefully. No blue or khaki, a jogging bra. She had not worn her gold necklace with its key.
The rules allowed visitors to bring money. Each visitor was permitted a clear plastic bag with up to twenty dollars inside in fives, ones, and quarters, to be spent in the vending machines. Emily had brought a ziploc bag of money.
The rules said nothing about makeup. Emily pulled out a red lipstick and twisted it out of its tube in the restroom, before she would have to place her purse in one of the lockers where visitors stored their personal belongings. It was not the same lipstick that Roberta had used that night at Victor’s, but it was a similar shade. Bright and garish. Other women in the bathroom applied makeup: sparkling eye shadows, rosy blushes, mascara, lipstick. They sprayed themselves with perfumes and primped their hair with brushes and combs. After the first coat of lipstick, Emily blotted her lips carefully with a paper towel, applied another coat, blotted again, and spread on a final layer of clear gloss. She smiled at herself in the mirror, then frowned, then smiled again. Her virgin face.
The rules of visitation permitted kissing and hugging at the beginning and end of a visit and handholding during the whole visit. She and Sylvia were seated at a table in the visiting room awaiting her father’s arrival.
Her father, his expression impassive, was escorted into the room and led to their table. He looked thin and colorless in his blue prison clothes. Emily stood and hugged him, and kissed him hard, on his mouth and both cheeks. He did not kiss or hug her back. She left traces of lipstick on his cheeks, and on his mouth, lip prints that he did not realize were there and did not wipe away. He sat down, and Sylvia began talking to him. Small talk. Soon, Emily would tell him to wipe the remnants of her lipstick off his face. Or Sylvia would. Soon Emily would take her bag of quarters and ones and fives and buy her father things he wanted to eat and drink from the row of vending machines. She would try to talk to him about something on her list. She sat and watched his face, and saw how her lipstick helped change him from her father into someone else--into Victor, or anyone she might touch with her lips and never really know.
Ann Ryles was a finalist for the 2017 Elixir Press Fiction Award and the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She was a semifinalist for the 2014 Iowa Short Fiction Award and the 2015 Ohio State University Press Non/Fiction Collection Prize. She is a graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco and UC Berkeley’s School of Law. Her work has appeared in The Minnesota Review, Midwestern Gothic, and Your Impossible Voice. Some of her favorite authors are Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones, Mary Gaitskill, and David Crouse. She lives in Moraga, California with her family.