Vanessa was home. She repeated the word to herself, tucked into her childhood bed, a twin with a pink comforter that barely covered the reach of her adult body and was somehow all the more comforting for that, hoping that if she whispered it often enough, the place would feel like it was supposed to. In Ghana, she’d slept on a cot in a room with three other volunteers, and when she closed her eyes at night she fantasized about luxuries she’d once taken for granted: a long shower, a sweating bottle of Arizona green iced tea. Every two weeks, when the NGO officer swung by and granted them each fifteen minutes of internet access on his laptop, instead of answering emails she browsed the Instagram accounts of her LA friends, gazing at their bright but bleary faces, their arms around drunk friends at parties in the first year of college they were all enjoying. On her own Facebook she’d quickly post some line about how Africa was changing her life, she felt so grateful and humble, and then she’d log off, hunger unmet.
Scrolling back now, she could see that Kelsey’s Instagram had been sparser than usual, just an occasional picture of the beach or her cat Max—Kelsey wasn’t in college either, unlike just about everybody else—but in Ghana she hadn’t been online often enough to notice. Kelsey’s emails were pedestrian and stilted (How are you? I am SO PROUD of you for what you’re doing! LA isn’t the same without you) but she was a terrible writer, always had been; Vanessa had been doing her English homework for her since they were twelve years old. Vanessa’s father, by contrast, had sent paragraphs-long messages, three or four every time she checked, and which she zoned out while skimming, the same way she zoned out when he talked to her in real life.
Still, she was sure there hadn’t been any clues.
When he picked her up at the airport, her father was dressed in his business uniform, a light grey suit with a blue shirt, no tie. He wrapped her in his arms, telling her she was too skinny but looked great, a mix of contradictory messages as usual, and she felt his stubble scrape against her ear; also as usual she felt overwhelmed by his body, his affection, while simultaneously wanting to be held next to it forever. Reflexively she thought, as she had since her mother left, This is everything I have. This five o’clock shadow, this not completely effective antiperspirant, this forced but genuine joviality, this Dad. They were happy to see each other but still ran out of things to say by the time they hit the 405.
“So your flights were okay?”
“You already asked me that.”
“Sorry.” He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, smeared his chin with his palm. He seemed keyed up, thrilled to see her—almost too thrilled to speak—which was gratifying.
“So how’s work?” she asked.
“Great. Hectic. Super hectic, really. Kelsey is a huge help.”
“Kelsey? Oh, right. The internship. She hasn’t flaked on you?”
Her father frowned. “Why would you say that?”
“Come on, Dad. You always said yourself she isn’t the most reliable person in the Western world.”
This tic of her father’s, always to specify a geographical range, as in This is the best hamburger in the Western world, used to drive her crazy, until she ate at what she’d been told was the best burger place in Accra and thought, You know, he has a point. She meant to tell him this, once he laughed in recognition at hearing her use his own pet phrase. But he didn’t laugh. Instead his expression turned serious, and he turned his head to look at her for so long that she was about to say, “Dad, the road—” But then he sighed, glanced back at the traffic, and said, “She’s been a godsend,” which was not a phrase she’d ever heard him use before in her life.
So she said nothing. The highway rose and fell, the stutter and swerve of traffic as familiar as her own pulse, and beside it palm trees and fast-food signage poked out from the June gloom. The sunset was ebbing, leaving flashes of neon as its hopeful replacements. She wanted a milkshake. She wanted a taco. She wanted everything ice cold or piping hot. To dip her toes in the ocean, to rinse the gunk from her scalp.
As he parked the car in the driveway her father cleared his throat. “There’s something I have to tell you,” he said, but then didn’t say anything. Vanessa had her hand on the door handle, was halfway out of the car, saying, “Tell me inside,” because she couldn’t wait to see her room, the kitchen with its well-stocked refrigerator, the bathtub, and so when he said, “Kelsey’s here,” she only thought that he’d done this for her, what a sweet gesture, inviting her best friend to welcome her home, and she missed the part or maybe he mumbled it when he said, “We’re together,” and he had to repeat it on the threshold, as she opened the door to the house she used to call home.
Kelsey was standing in the foyer, wearing shorts and a hoodie, one foot overlapping the other, and she gave Vanessa a hug and said, “I guess he told you! I know, it’s so weird,” and held up her hand with the engagement ring.
Vanessa thought, If she says, “We didn’t plan it, it just happened,” I am going to kill her or myself.
“It just—” Kelsey started and Vanessa didn’t want to kill anybody, so she interrupted and said, heading for the kitchen, “I’m starved.”
What followed was the longest shortest dinner of Vanessa’s life: ten minutes spent picking apart snacks that Kelsey had arranged on a platter while Vanessa watched her move around the kitchen. The explanations tumbled out of her father and her friend, each of them completing each other’s sentences, her father’s large hands gently slapping the table every so often, keen to touch Kelsey’s shoulder or hand but holding back, for Vanessa’s sake, she could tell. Kelsey had started out working as an intern, become a trusted advisor, and somewhere along the way graduated to girlfriend. They’d kept the relationship secret, because they wanted to tell Vanessa first, and doing it long distance didn’t feel right. But now they were happy, happiness spilled from them, sloshed like liquid from a drunk person’s glass. Through the scrim of joyful phrases Vanessa eventually discerned that not only were they together, not only were they engaged, but Kelsey was living here; she had moved in months ago.
She ate an olive, a slice of cheese.
Her father said, “You must be exhausted.”
Kelsey said, “I know this is a lot.”
Vanessa couldn’t have said how she felt. There were no words for it. At this same table, her mother had harangued her about grades and boys, had helped Vanessa and Kelsey frost cupcakes for an eighth-grade bake sale. Also at this table, she’d told Vanessa about the affair she’d been having, with a Swiss oncologist named Jonas—“a man of great purpose and integrity,” she said, as if reading from a certificate of achievement—whom she intended to follow to Europe, to make a life of intentionality. Vanessa had been to visit them once, had toured the clinic where Jonas treated poor people who couldn’t otherwise afford care, while her mother helped their families. Her mother had let her hair go grey and wore fuzzy sweaters that looked hand knitted, though Vanessa didn’t know by whom. Before she departed, Vanessa’s mother had kissed her and told her—her voice somehow both urgent and lazy—to let herself be happy. Then she’d added, like an afterthought, “Let your father be happy, too.”
Vanessa stood and stretched, rubbing her eyes. “Congratulations, you guys,” she said.
At least that’s over, Graham thought, getting into bed beside his child bride. He didn’t ever call her that out loud, of course—she would have been hurt, and rightly so, and anyway they weren’t married yet—but he nonetheless thought of her that way, hearing Tracey’s sardonic voice in his ear. His ex-wife’s imagined commentary was a running counterpoint to his thing with Kelsey. You don’t live with someone from senior year of college through your forty-sixth birthday without folding them into your brain. In the three years she’d been gone he’d come to realize that he depended on her judgment just as much as he had when she was still around; depended on it even when he chose to defy it. So he let her speak to him, chide him, mock him when he deserved it. Sometimes he’d be listening to her, and Kelsey would say, “What is it?” She was sharp enough to see through his muttered excuses, but young enough not to question them directly.
Of course it was possible he’d chosen her for exactly this reason.
So yes, okay, fine, Tracey, he was a cliché, patching his shattered ego together with the affections of a beautiful, dark-haired nineteen-year-old. But Kelsey wasn’t just some kid. Her character was tough; her life hadn’t been easy; she had essentially raised herself. To see how she responded to the simplest kindness was to understand how much had been denied her.
She’s your daughter’s age, Tracey’s voice said to him at the office, when they first started bantering. Picture Vanessa with one of your friends. That had pulled him up short. But quickly—so quickly—Vanessa, away in Africa, became an abstraction. And anyway he’d never really understood his daughter, a fact he wouldn’t admit to anyone, especially her, especially not after life had made him essentially her only parent. When he’d first met Tracey she was a feminist activist, she went to marches for reproductive freedom in Washington and argued politics for hours and the edge never wore off her, even after decades of marriage and home buying and social work and motherhood. She could always smite you with a phrase; she could wither the world with the moral force of her gaze. When she told him she was leaving, he wasn’t surprised; he was only amazed that this restless and sharp-tongued woman had stayed put with him in one place for as long as she had.
Yet in Vanessa they had somehow produced a mild, biddable child, a girl who, when asked what she wanted to do, what her dreams were, once thought over the question and answered gravely, “I’m not sure . . . maybe . . . marketing?”
Then again, after Tracey’s departure Vanessa had weirdly not struggled in school at all, had applied herself as diligently as ever, and she surprised everyone, the guidance counselors, Graham, by announcing her plan to do volunteer work in Africa for a year. She said she wanted to do something good for the world. So she deferred NYU and off she went and Tracey whispered in his ear, accusingly and correctly, You’re relieved to see her go.
He drove her to the airport, he wrote her every other day, he followed the news about Ghana, asked questions about her activities to which he received only the most cursory responses. He worried about her constantly. And then he fucked her best friend.
Who was lying with her back to him now, hunched beneath the duvet, hiding the tattoo of a compass that reached across her delicate shoulder blades. When he’d asked her what it symbolized, she said, “That I have a sense of direction.” Kelsey was thin but strong, with black hair that curled around her neck. He brushed it away and wrapped himself around her, feeling her relax back into him, her need soothing his.
“Maybe I should leave,” she said. “Maybe it’s too weird.”
He knew she didn’t mean it. He kissed the nape of her neck, the fine hairs there. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said. “You’re mine.”
In the morning Vanessa woke to a bright, empty house. Only when she walked into the kitchen did she realize that it wasn’t morning, but two in the afternoon. The central air kicked on and off in a steady, plush rhythm. She poured herself a glass of juice and wandered around, touching her fingers to things as if to confirm their reality. The kitchen counter, the living room sofa, the bathroom towels. In her father’s bedroom Kelsey’s clothes hung on one side of the closet; her shoes stood in a rack on the floor. The bed was neatly made. In their bathroom she fingered the pill bottles: her dad’s antidepressants, Kelsey’s ADD meds. She took a couple of Kelsey’s, washing them down with a handful of tap water. By the time she showered and dressed, her brain was pleasantly humming and the colors everywhere felt deluxe. She drove around for a while, just for the pleasure of driving, then stopped at an In-N-Out Burger and ate outside without sunglasses, squinting and chewing. Her teeth felt wooden in her mouth: uncertainly fastened, ready to splinter. She remembered as a child learning that George Washington had wooden teeth. She always wondered what kind of wood and how roughly hewn, and she pictured the first president grinning in lightly carved maple or birch, twigs and leaves gathering at the corners of his mouth. Later she found out this was a myth; Washington’s dentures were made from the teeth of slaves. Her mother told her that. She drank a Coke down, then refilled.
“Look who it is,” a voice said, interrupting her thoughts. “Miss United Nations.”
With some difficulty she focused her gaze on the speaker, who was a boy with shaggy brown hair wearing a navy blue T-shirt with a picture of a baby on it. The baby was smoking a cigar. Out of context—and everything felt out of context at the moment—the boy was hard to place.
“You don’t even recognize me,” he said. “I’m wounded.”
“Who are you?”
“It’s Barry,” he said. Seeing her empty expression, he switched to a reciting tone. “Barret Oliver Bernstein,” he said. “You may remember me from trig, and AP history, and music camp between eighth and ninth grade, and also I think we spent seven minutes in heaven at Jane Rodriguez’s thirteenth-birthday party. Man, Africa has made you a snob, Vanessa Palkovsky.”
“Barry,” she said. “God, I’m so sorry. So very sorry. God.”
“Are you high?”
“Kind of. Something.”
“I didn’t even know you were back.”
“I just got here,” she said. She stood in front of him, drinking her Coke, her mouth worrying the plastic straw, fixated on the almost painful burst of bubbles against her lips, the sweet acid of the drink coursing down to her gut. She opened her mouth to say something else but burped instead, and then shrugged. Her time in Ghana hadn’t changed her vitally but it had rendered her temporarily immune to certain things.
Barry laughed. “I’d ask you to sit down, but I don’t think you can.” Only when she followed his gaze did she understand that her foot was idly kicking the stem of the plastic table where he sat, tapping it in concert with the sips from her straw.
“I was thinking of going to the beach,” she said. “Want to come?”
He stood up instantly, crumpling his napkin into a swirl of ketchup. “No offense, but I’d better drive.”
In the car he said he was going to community college, which frankly sucked but was all he could afford after his dad lost his job and emptied Barry’s college fund so they wouldn’t lose the house.
“I didn’t even find out until, like, the last minute,” he said. “I thought he’d been working as a consultant for the past two years. He had a home office and stuff.”
“Consultant’s what old people say when they’re unemployed.”
“I understand this now,” Barry said. They were on the freeway, not rushing freely but moving at a stately, caged pace through midafternoon congestion. Vanessa kept burping, a slow but constant stream. “I was packing for school when he came into my room and said, ‘There’s something I have to tell you.’ ”
Vanessa smiled at him for the first time. “Prefaces are the worst,” she said.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” Barry repeated in a stagey tone.
“I’ve been earning a living as a male prostitute.”
“Your grandparents aren’t in Tacoma. They’re in jail.”
“I really am adopted, though. I just found that out, too.”
“Wait, seriously?” She clapped her hand to her mouth.
She laughed. The beach was cloudy and windy, the surf flat, and a row of surfers paddled hopelessly in a line not far from shore. They walked for a while without speaking, then sat down in a sheltered spot in the dunes. Vanessa’s stomach bucked unhappily. After a few minutes she stood up, walked quickly away from Barry, and threw up her hamburger by some rocks, wiping her chin with the hem of her shirt.
“I’m not used to the food here,” she said, sitting back down next to him. Seagulls were already making a feast of her vomit, jostling each other angrily to get at it.
“You’re a tourist in reverse,” he said. “A stranger in a strange land. Et cetera.”
“Don’t say et cetera,” she said.
Her lips were chapped, and she pulled at a shred until it bled, rubbing her reddened fingertip absent-mindedly on her thigh. Farther down the beach a big dog and a small dog were running into the waves, the small dog fearless, the big one hanging back and barking. Which seemed like a metaphor for something, but she was too tired to think of what. Kelsey’s pills were wearing off, leaving a headache behind. Barry put his arm around her shoulder; he smelled—she couldn’t have said what she meant by this, but the notion was clear in her mind—American. For a while she leaned her head against his shoulder, and then she leaned over into his lap and gave him a blow job. When he finished she rested her head on his legs, and he ran his fingers through her hair. It seemed funny that she’d forgotten him, when she’d known him for so long.
“Money, Geography, Youth,” excerpted from We Want What We Want and by Alix Ohlin. Copyright © 2021 by Alix Ohlin. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Initially published in: Missouri Review.