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CHAPTER 5 – EMI

On the bathroom floor, I finally start to unpack the box of beauty products. It had been sealed tight since the week before Christmas, but I want to wear lipstick today. Joey’s coming today. I find the darkest red color I can find– and the matching liner– and paint my lips like my sister taught me to when I was twelve. It was one of the few useful things Jen had taught me.

Finding an opened package of small barrettes, I find a couple that don’t match and pull my bangs back into two very small pigtails. Adding a little more mousse to my hair, I think it finally looks perfectly messy. 

“Emi, come on! Other people need in there.” My brother bangs on the door three times to make his point.

“Go use Mom’s!” I whine to my brother. I hate having to share a bathroom with him. And meanwhile, Dad’s in our old four-bedroom-four-bath house, all by himself. Well, he does have the stupid cat. They deserve each other.

“She’s still asleep,” he pleads with me. “I don’t want to wake her up.”

“Fine,” I say, throwing open the door and averting my face as I try to side-step him.

“Did you put on makeup?” he asks, then laughs.

“No,” I snarl at him. “My lips are chapped.”

“Sure they are.” He shuts the door, but makes sure to recite the lyrics to a song loud enough for me to hear. 

“And if I seem to be confused, I didn’t mean to be with you.” 

“Not funny!” I yell as loud as I can.

“Oh, Joey, I’m not angry anymore!”*

My brother cannot sing, so his attempts at singing the Concrete Blonde song are very poor. I can hear him laugh over the running water of the shower. I’m glad he can’t see my reaction, because it is kind of funny. It wasn’t so funny last year, but I can laugh about it now.

I’d had a crush on my brother’s friend since I was in the sixth grade. In fact, he was the reason Jen taught me how to put on makeup in the first place. My first crush. Joey spent a lot of time at our house, mainly playing video games with Chris. I’d become pretty good at some multi-player games myself, just so I could get more time with him.

Joey, though, didn’t like me in return, no matter what I did. He always saw me as Chris did, as a little sister– even though Joey was only a few months older than me. So when he asked me to go to the movies last year, it was a complete surprise. It was a little strange that Chris didn’t know about it before I came home from school that day, walking on clouds, but I didn’t care. When my brother asked his friend what was going on, Joey just asked if he could keep it between me and him. I started practicing writing my new last name that afternoon. Emi Amons. Mr. and Mrs. Joey and Emi Amons. Joseph and Emily Amons. And we lived happily ever after.

Right.

Joey had a hardship license, which I thought was so cool. My mom, caught up in the excitement, bought me a new outfit and helped me get ready for my first date. Chris had left the house early that afternoon on his bike, feeling uncomfortable with the situation all of a sudden. I didn’t know that until later. His loyalty had been tested, and he’d chosen wrong. Again, I’d find this out that evening.

His friend showed up a little before six. He came up to the front stoop and rang the doorbell, and I’d let my dad open the door for me. Of course my parents knew Joey already, and thought he was a good enough kid, so they didn’t do the typical grilling that I’d seen them do with all of my sister’s suitors. I was over-dressed, compared to what he was wearing. I’d let my mother talk me into a skirt and a silk blouse, but Joey was wearing what he typically wore: blue jeans and a t-shirt with a cartoon character on it. I felt a little silly, but I wanted him to know that I thought he was special. I should have turned that logic around, and realized that he was letting me know that I wasn’t that special to him. It would have saved me from certain embarrassment that was to come.

When I got to the car, there was another girl in the backseat. She was my age, wearing jeans and a button-down blouse.

“Emi, this is my step-sister, Mariah,” he’d said as he climbed into the driver’s seat. I was still standing on the curb, hoping he’d open the door for me. “It’s unlocked.”

Why I didn’t just turn around and march back into my house, I’m not sure. I was still holding out for hope, I guess. I climbed into the front seat and said hi to Mariah, still not understanding what was going on.

“Thanks for coming with me,” she’d said as we got near the theater. “I really wanted to see this movie, but none of my friends would go.” Joey didn’t respond. I couldn’t believe she was going with us to see this movie; that my first date would be accompanied by another girl. I just looked ahead and smiled.

When Joey got to the mall, he pulled up beside the box office window. “Curb-side service,” he said. I thanked him as I got out, as did his step-sister.

“Are you going to park the car?” I’d asked him.

“No, I’m meeting my friends at the arcade. I’ll see you in two hours.”

I held on to the edge of the door, getting ready to slam it, but he drove off before I could. I stared at the tire tracks his car left as he peeled away.

“This is gonna be so fun!” Mariah said, touching my arm to try to direct me toward the theater. I tried to smile at her, but I wasn’t sure what my expression actually looked like. It confused her, too, based on her reaction.

The movie was a comedy, but I cried most of the way through it. A year later, I still hate Jim Carrey by association.

And yet, I don’t hate Joey. I let Mariah go home with her step-brother, but I called my house and asked for someone to come pick me up. While I waited for my mom, I sat inside, eating Raisinettes and counting the checkerboard tiles in the lobby. There were two-hundred-twenty-nine.

I didn’t fawn over Joey much after that either, though. I didn’t appreciate what he’d done, but my lingering– albeit dwindling– affection made it difficult for me to be as angry with him as I should have been. He used me. Chris was much angrier than I was. He was the most upset with himself, though, because he knew about the setup the day before it happened and promised not to tell me. He swore to me that night when I came home with tear-streaked makeup and chocolate stains on my new blouse that he would never let a friend come between our relationship again. It took my brother a month to forgive Joey… and he only did it after I begged him to.

Now, Joey’s a little piece of home, though. He’s familiar, and for that, I like that he’s coming over today. I also want him to see my new hairstyle and my tight-fitting jeans and sweater. A late bloomer, I was finally starting to appreciate curves that he might find attractive some day. I wanted him to regret what he’d done.  Not that I’d ever give him another chance. I wouldn’t, especially now that I’ve seen how love can destroy people. Surely it’s better to be alone than to be cheated on and lied to after devoting your life to someone. And already, I couldn’t trust Joey.

“Why are you and Chris fighting?” My mom’s tired voice startles me.

“We’re not,” I assure her. “Were we too loud?”

You were,” she says. “It’s before ten on a Saturday. New rule. No yelling before… noon on Saturdays.”

Mom had been making a lot of new rules lately. She was trying to find the good things about being single. Not having to get up to make breakfast for her pig-headed, cheating husband was one of them. “Sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It’s okay. Your sister called last night. She’s coming down for dinner.”

“Which guy is she bringing this time?”

“Someone named Josh,” she says, shaking her head. Josh was probably the twentieth ‘serious boyfriend’ Jen had been with since she started dating at fifteen. In fact, if this was a new guy, this would be Josh number three. Or four. I can’t remember anymore.

“Can’t I go out with Chris and Joey instead? I think they’re going for pizza.”

“She wants to spend some time with you,” my mom says.

“With Josh?”

“He draws, or something. She thinks you’ll get along.”

“I’m sure we will,” I answer, rolling my eyes. “She doesn’t even know what I do, Mom. She’s never even asked.”

“You should tell her. Just try to get along with her, Em, okay?” The tea kettle whistles from the kitchen, and Mom smiles as she leaves my room to tend to it.

I should tell her. I laugh to myself. When have we ever talked about me? Every conversation we have is so Jen-focused that I’d learned way more about my sister than I ever wanted to know. The only good thing about having her as a promiscuous older sister was that she told me things about sex that my parents wouldn’t talk about. Most of those conversations, I couldn’t imagine having them with Mom, or especially Dad. Especially now.

At school on Friday, my English teacher gave me a copy of the Canterbury Tales to read. In a week, I have to present a tale and provide commentary on its narrator to the class. She had thoughtfully assigned each character to a student– at least that’s what she’d told me. She had assigned the task on Wednesday, and she’d admitted she was worried when I didn’t show up to class this week. She’d assigned me the Knight, and expressed to me that he was her favorite character. 

Waiting for something to happen today, I decide to start the book to kill some time. The Knight, by description, sounds like the perfect man; the kind of man that doesn’t really exist in modern society. Up until a few weeks ago, I believed he did. I believed my dad exemplified the chivalrous and faithful traits of a good man, but he proved me wrong. Accepting that life in Chaucer’s time was likely more pure, with more structure and fewer adulterous temptations, I accept this Knight in his shiny armor and read on.

I’m not too far into the story when I figure out why she gave me this particular tale. I’d wondered, since she’d never met me, how ‘thoughtful’ the assignment could be. It was very obvious, though. The young, fair maiden in the story was named Emily.

I would have rolled my eyes, had they not been glued to the pages. The Knight was the first pilgrim to tell his tale, and his story had drawn me in from the start. Of course I was curious about Emily, who had been introduced as the heroine. Reading on, the Knight continued a tale about two young prisoners who each fell in love with Emily when they saw her out of their prison cell window.

Love at first sight. Another concept that doesn’t really exist. I try to remove my cynicism and general disappointment in love as I continue the story. My imagination allows me to get caught up in the romance of it, the poetry of Chaucer’s words giving my mind a new playground to explore. 

I hear Joey and Chris downstairs, but I want to finish the story, now that I’ve started. It’s not often that a book draws me in, but there’s something about this one. I continue reading until I hit one passage that takes me out of this Old English world and slams me back into reality.

When love is strong, love knows no law. Love itself has greater dominion. Earthly rules are of no account. Lovers break them every day. A man must love, even if he strives against it; he cannot escape love, even at the cost of his own life. It may be love for a maid, for a widow, or for a married woman. It does not matter. Love is the law of life itself.**

Love should create rules, and abide by them. The vows exchanged in front of families and friends and God should dictate behavior. It should encourage two people to always honor what they share. Love. Stupid book. 

I grab a scrap of paper from my dresser– a ticket stub– and stick it in the book as a placeholder. I wanted to like this story. Now I don’t even want to finish it.

Finally deciding to join my brother and his friend, I head downstairs into the small living area next to the kitchen. My mom has made sandwiches for them, and is cleaning up by the time I find a place next to Chris on the couch.

Love is the law of life itself. 

What does that even mean?

“Earth to Emi,” Joey says. I hadn’t realized anyone was speaking to me.

“Hey, Joey.” When I finally look at him, his warm smile greets me and he stands up to hug me. I embrace him quickly, noting silently that my heart isn’t racing like it used to. I thought I was over him, but I needed this test to make sure. It makes me smile wider.

“Feeling better? Chris said you were sick.” He cocks one eyebrow, and I’m sure he knows the truth.

“My mom knows,” I tell him. “I’m fine. Well-rested.”

“Your apartment’s cool.”

“Not really,” I argue. “It’s tiny and sharing a bathroom with him is the most disgusting thing in the entire world.”

“Shut up,” my brother says, throwing a napkin at me.

“Proof,” I say, retrieving the messy paper cloth from the floor.

“Yeah, and you left it so tidy, with all that makeup,” he says sarcastically. “Why’re you wearing makeup today, huh, Emi?” My eyes stay on my brother’s, not daring to look at Joey, who I know is staring at me, making assumptions. I’m sure he thinks it’s to impress him, but it’s really just to make him understand that I’m not a little girl anymore. He’s always had this image of who I am, and I’ve grown up a lot since then. I’ve grown up more in the past month than I’d really wanted to. In a way, I want some of that innocence back. The world was familiar and safe before. Now, I know some of its ugly truths, and I don’t like them.

“You look hot,” Joey says, shrugging his shoulders. “Not that I want to go out with you or anything, I’m just stating the facts.”

“I know I do,” I tell him, trying to put off an air of confidence and wondering if anyone can see through my own self-doubt. If they can, they don’t show it. “Not that I’d ever go out with you anyway.” I punctuate my statement with a smug smile.

“Glad we’re on the same page.”

“Yep,” I say. “How’s everyone back home?” I ask, happy to catch up on the gossip I’d missed. Joey tells us about everything that happened over Christmas break, admitting that the most newsworthy thing to happen was us, moving away so abruptly. It figures.

As the afternoon wears on, the three of us squeeze into Chris’s tiny bedroom and play video games on a television that was made for a room twice the size of this one. My dad bought it for my brother for Christmas. He wrapped his guilt up in extravagant wrapping paper for each of us. Jen got a new computer for school. I got a new stereo with top of the line headphones. I needed them because you could hear everything in this apartment through its paper-thin walls. When I first unwrapped the gift– Dad wasn’t even there Christmas morning to see us– I’d decided I wouldn’t use it. I thought about pawning it, not wanting any reminder of him.

My brother had set it up in my room, though, while I was getting ready, and started playing my favorite CD on it. It would have been too troublesome to disassemble everything at that point. And it was really nice. He’d felt really guilty. As he should.

My sister shows up around four o’clock. The three of us join her, her boyfriend, and my mother downstairs for a little bit, but Chris and Joey only stay for an hour. Chris had told me earlier that they were going to check out a local pizza place, but Joey let it slip that they were going there because Chris had heard that it was a popular place to pick up girls. I think the groan I let out was the same one my mom did. After they left, I’d wondered if my brother had asked my mom to make sure I didn’t come along. I know if I had asked, he would’ve said yes, not wanting to hurt my feelings.

A few minutes after Mom left us to cook dinner, Jen followed her into the kitchen, leaving me alone with her boyfriend.

“Jen says you like to draw,” he says eagerly. He leans forward, as if anxious to hear my response. A medallion swings from a heavy gold rope chain as he moves. It sits atop the neckline of his t-shirt, but I can still see thick, dark hair from his chest. Every once in awhile, he runs his fingers through slicked-back hair, and I just wonder what in the world my sister sees in him.

“I don’t,” I tell him simply. “I like to create things. Collages, stationery, CD covers, stuff like that.”

“Well, that sounds interesting. Tell me about the best thing you’ve done.”

I shrug my shoulders as if I can’t decide, but I know my response immediately. “I did the program for our school play a few months ago.”

“What was so good about it?”

“It was hand-assembled. We used really nice paper on the inside, and the outside of it was, like, almost fabric. I designed all the pieces, and the whole cast had a party assembling them one night before the performance. No two were alike.” I enjoyed the project not just for the piece that I produced, but the lock-in with my brother and so many of our friends had been one of the funnest nights of my life. 

“Do you have one?”

“I have about ten. Did you want to see?”

“Maybe later,” he says. “Is that what you want to do after school?”

“What, glue together paper? I’m not sure that’s a career.”

“Sure it is!” Josh says. “Graphic design. You get to do all the things you mentioned you like to do.”

“But I can’t draw.”

“You hire people to draw. Or you teach yourself. It’s not that hard.”

“What are you studying?”

“I studied advertising,” he says. “I graduated two years ago. I work on Madison Avenue.”

“You make commercials?”

“I sell the airtime,” he says. “I’m an Account Executive.”

“How’d you meet Jen?”

“At a bar,” he says with a laugh. “She spilled her drink on me while she was dancing with her friends.”

“That sounds like her,” I smile. 

“I care about her a lot,” he tells me. 

“Well, good.” They all do, for the few months that they date her. Then she gets bored or finds someone better. I decide not to tell him what he has to look forward to.

“My parents are divorced,” Josh informs me, minutes after neither of us has anything to say.

“I don’t want to talk about that.”

“It gets better.” I glare at him before getting up and leaving the room. I ignore the apology he gives as I walk upstairs.

“Emi,” my sister says, barging into my room. “Why can’t you just be normal?”

“What? He started talking about how his parents aren’t together. Sorry, but that’s not something that interests me.”

“Well, sometimes people talk about things you may not like, but you don’t just stomp up to your bedroom and avoid it entirely. He was just trying to be relatable.”

“I can’t relate to that guy. He looks smarmy.”

“Well, I love him.”

“Right.”

“I do, Emi. He’s asked me to marry him.”

“What?!” I ask, completely taken aback. Two months ago, she was with a different guy. “Why, are you pregnant?” I ask sarcastically. Her eyes shift slightly, briefly, but she can’t recover from her innate response. “You are?”

“Emi, do not tell Mom yet. We’re going to break the news to her gradually.”

“Are you going to finish school?”

“Eventually,” she says.

“Dad’s gonna kill you.”

“Nope,” she says. “I already told him. He’s going to pay for the wedding.”

“Even though you’re pregnant?”

“Can you keep it down? This apartment’s tiny and I don’t want Mom to hear that part. Not tonight.”

“Because you know she will kill you.”

“I know she’s not going to be happy about it… and I know she doesn’t need anything more to stress her out right now. I want to give her a few weeks to get settled here… give you a few weeks to stop being a little spoiled brat and making her worry needlessly because you have to throw your silent tantrums.”

“I don’t do that.”

“Yes, you do. Try to make this work, Emi. Do it for her.”

“I want Dad to know how much he’s ruined my life,” I tell her. “I don’t want to make it easy on him. He doesn’t deserve it.”

“Well, Mom doesn’t deserve what you’re putting her through. If you want to make Dad’s life miserable, go move back in with him. Then you can go back to your little group of drama-freak friends and act out all you want.”

“I have no desire to see him again.”

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, little sister, but you will have to see him again–”

“Not if I can help it–”

“Then you’ll miss out on my wedding? And lots of things between now and then, because I plan to have him in my life.”

“Why?” I ask her, disgusted.

“Because I’ve talked to him about Elai–”

“Do not say her name in this house,” I warn her.

“Well, I’ve talked to him about her, and I honestly believe that he loves her.”

“He was supposed to love Mom.”

“I think he did. And I know you have some romantic notion of love–”

“Not anymore–”

“But sometimes, feelings wane.”

“I guess if anyone would know that, you would.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I glare at her, knowing that she knows exactly what I mean. “I just hadn’t found the right person yet.”

“And that slick guy downstairs is the right person?”

“Yeah.”

“Today, anyway,” I add sarcastically. “Feelings wane,” I repeat her words to me.

“I believe you can love more than one person in a lifetime, Emi. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Then it’s not true love.”

“You are so idealistic. Wait until you graduate and go off to college and start experiencing life outside your little bubble. I hope reality smacks you hard. You’ve always been so judgmental of me–”

“You bring it on yourself! What kind of example do you set for me? Oh, wait, are you making all the mistakes for both of us? So I don’t have to? Well, then I guess I should be thanking you.”

“Bitch.”

“Whore.”

“Screw reality,” she says, moving toward me quickly and slapping me across the face. I push her away hard, and she stumbles back, putting her hand over her stomach. I can’t hit her. As much as I want to, she has a baby growing inside of her, and I can’t hit her.

“What’s going on?” Josh asks, coming to Jen’s aid. I hold my hand up to my cheek, still in shock that she actually hit me.

“We’re just having one of our regular conversations,” my sister says. “This is how it always goes.”

“Your sister is not a whore,” Josh tells me angrily. “How dare you say that, you little smart-mouthed drama queen!

“Get out of my room,” I seethe to them both. I’m even angrier, realizing that my sister has been talking about me to her new boyfriend behind my back. 

“I’ll tell Mom you’re feeling sick again,” Jen says. “Don’t you dare come back downstairs.”

“I’ll wait until you leave to tell her your fantastic news.”

“Don’t you dare tell her. It’s not your news to share, Emi, and I will never forgive you.”

“You think I care?”

“You should,” she says. “We’re family. Don’t do it for me. Do it for Mom. Can you just try to give her a few weeks of peace?”

I don’t answer, instead choosing to pick up my book to make my point that I’m done with the conversation. Josh shuts the door quietly behind them. Frustrated, I throw the Canterbury Tales hard against the wall. Curled up on my tiny bed, I stare at the second hand of the clock across the room. It’s not even six o’clock on a Saturday. Normally, I’d be out with a group of friends. Instead, in a small New York town an hour away from here, that same group of friends is moving on without me. 

After ten minutes, I decide I won’t be confined to my bedroom tonight.

Standing up, I go to my closet to grab my coat and slide into my warmest boots. I pick up my purse and shove the book inside. As quietly as I can, I descend the stairs, pausing at the small landing to listen for my sister and mom. I can hear them both in the kitchen, so I keep going until I hit the bottom floor. Josh must be with them, so I’m able to sneak out the front door, unnoticed.

©2012 Lori L. Otto

*Joey ©1990 by Concrete Blonde

**The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling ©2009 by Peter Ackroyd

Do you like what you’ve read so far?  This is a prequel to my Emi Lost & Found series.  You can download the first book, Lost and Found, for only $.99!