The Ugliest Thing
IT WAS THE ugliest thing she had ever seen. Obnoxiously ugly. Embarrassingly ugly. Epically ugly. And it was sitting in her family’s driveway.
Actually, no. It was sitting in the Waldmans’ driveway—or, at least, what would shortly become the Waldmans’ driveway when escrow closed in a few days and the house Odette Zyskowski grew up in wouldn’t be her home anymore. That thing would be her home. That run-down, beat-up brown-and-brown RV that Mom and Dad had just pulled up in, honking what was intended to be a cheerful beep, but instead sounded like the mournful death cry of a desperate whale.
Odette looked behind herself at the house, trying to ignore the SOLD banner splashed across the FOR SALE sign stuck in the front lawn. She had never given the house much thought. It was just a house. But now she saw the brick path winding through the grass from the sidewalk, uneven and tipsy, and it occurred to Odette that she knew every brick on that path—which ones were chipped, which listed slightly to the side, which were stamped with the bricklayer’s name, Steinberg & Sons.
She saw the bright red front door, the door she slammed through every afternoon at 3:14 P.M. Behind that door, Odette knew, was the mud bench where she ditched her backpack and shoes. She saw the wide, bright windows, the shutters that framed them. She took in the dark shingle roof that her parents had been talking about replacing for years but would soon become the Waldmans’ problem.
It was a beautiful home.
Mom cut the engine of the RV, and Dad threw open the metal door on the side and a set of two steps popped out.
Rex stood next to Odette, rocking up onto the balls of his feet, the way he did when he got excited. “Awesome, awesome, awesome,” he chanted to himself, and when Dad called, “So, what do you guys think?” Rex shouted “Awesome!” and ran full speed into Dad, butting his head into Dad’s stomach and grinding it against him.
Dad said “Oof!” and laughed, and Mom, coming out of the RV, said, “Careful, buddy,” and then she asked Odette, “So, honey, what do you think?” but Odette was already heading back into the Waldmans’ house, slamming the red door shut behind her.
ODETTE’S ROOM WAS at the end of the hall, just before the turn to her parents’ bedroom. The hall was stacked with boxes, piled three high and labeled in thick black Sharpie ink: REX’S ROOM (STORAGE); LINENS AND BEDDING (STORAGE); BATHROOM MISC. (YARD SALE); BOOKS (LIBRARY GIVEAWAY); BATHROOM ESSENTIALS (COACH).
That was what Mom was calling the RV: the “Coach.” The word brought a few things to Odette’s mind—baseball, for one, a sport she found endlessly boring but still somehow comforting; Mr. Santiago, the track-and-field coach at Odette’s middle school, who after he’d seen her run the mile in PE had spent most of Odette’s sixth grade year trying to recruit her to the team; and Cinderella’s pumpkin-turned-coach that she took to the ball.
None of these images had anything to do with Mom’s use of the word in sentences like “When we pick up the Coach, the first thing we’ll do is fix up your private space, Detters” (which was what she liked to call Odette), and “It might not look like much in the pictures, kids, but the Coach has under twenty thousand miles on it and is as snug as a bug inside.”
The Coach. Sitting in the driveway. Odette couldn’t get far enough away, no matter how good a runner she was. So she had to content herself with slamming her bedroom door—hard enough to make the windows rattle—and throwing herself face-down onto the bed.
Her sheets smelled like home. The same detergent her mom had been using as long as Odette had been aware of detergent smell. Probably before that. And even with her eyes closed and her face pressed into her bedspread, Odette could perfectly picture her room. The pale blue walls. The light pink ceiling, a gently whirling fan just above her bed. The windows, looking out over the backyard, with their gossamer-thin ballooning white curtains.
And more: the seven pillows she arranged each morning after making her bed, and then restacked each night on the carpet before climbing between her sheets. Two yellow, one pink, one green, two blue, one red.
There wouldn’t be room for her seven throw pillows in the Coach. “You can bring one,” Mom had told her.
One. Absolutely ridiculous.
When the knock came at her door, Odette ignored it. She knew it was Dad from the way he knocked—always a little pattern, a little song, not just straight across with all his knuckles.
She heard him open the door anyway, even though she hadn’t said “Come in,” and that bothered her too, that lack of respect, that lack of privacy, and the mean little voice in her head taunted, You’d better get used to it, Odette. There won’t be much privacy in the Coach.
Her dad cleared his throat. Odette could tell that he was still lurking just inside the doorway. That was her dad—a lurker. He was always ho-ing and hum-ing about decisions, weighing the costs and benefits. Mom sometimes said, “You’re going to drive me crazy, Simon! Just do something!”
But he didn’t usually do anything—at least, not anything important. He’d ho and hum until Odette’s mom got tired of waiting and just did it herself—whatever it was that needed doing. Choosing which car to buy. Picking the toppings for the pizza.
And then, three months ago, Odette’s dad had done something. Something big. Something crazy.
“They were going to lay off three guys,” she heard Dad telling Mom. “Three guys who actually like their jobs. And with Sissy being so sick, not to mention the trouble we’ve been having with us . . . with each other . . . I thought, well, I guess I thought it couldn’t make things any worse.”
It was late at night, and Dad hadn’t gotten home from the office in time for dinner, which wasn’t that unusual. Odette was supposed to be asleep, like Rex was in his room (dark blue with deep-sea ocean fish painted on the walls and a jellyfish diorama on his bookcase), but she wasn’t. She was sneaking out to the kitchen for a cookie. And there were her parents, sitting at the table, with only the small sink light turned on. They were holding hands.
It looked so strange, their hands. Fingers interwoven, like the kids at school, like they were announcing to the world that they were a couple. It wasn’t something Odette was used to seeing between her parents. Usually, if anyone was holding anyone’s hand, it was Mom and Rex. Sometimes Dad and Rex. But never Mom and Dad.
Odette had ...