Speak My Language
by zara hemla

It was only yesterday -- my eyes touched yours across the street. We cut the words and waved goodbye and dropped off the edge of the world. -- the Cure


Keith sits in the kitchen, staring at Karen's things. He's been in the kitchen before, maybe a thousand times, but rarely when she's out of it. And now she's in Italy and he has the place to himself. Himself and Lukas, who is never home. He breezes in for a quick meal and then out again, off to play hoops or go to a party or whatever it is that teenagers do nowadays.

Why had he been so quick to volunteer to stay here? Why not say, Lukas can stay with me, instead of, I'll stay with Lukas? It's muddled, complicated. He's not the boy's father -- and that's half the problem - - but surely he doesn't want to spend the next six weeks in her house, lounging in her living room, sleeping in her bed.

Keith studies his hands, the oil grained into the fingers. She'd kissed him in the airport. She had just -- just -- He shoves back from the table suddenly. What right did she have to do that? Just do that and walk away like it was nothing, like she'd see him later? He goes over to the sink, gets the dish soap, scrubs the two plates and glasses he and Lukas had used for dinner. Her plates. Her soap (citrus scented). Her dish towels, printed with -- he squints -- fading teddy bears.

The sun is setting, and he peers out the window, trying to make out the street. What is Lukas doing right now? The boy had promised to call if "he was going to be late," but Lukas hadn't volunteered a time and Keith hadn't pushed it. It's a man thing: trust the other guy until he fucks up, then come down on him. That's what his father had always done with him. And Keith, secure in that knowledge, had made sure not to get caught fucking up, which he had done on a regular basis.

Now he's too old for all those games and suddenly he envies Lukas all that energy: the time and the vigor to go out and get the girls or the booze or the ball game. Apparently it's his own karma to wait and wait and have the girl come to him only when she's also leaving.

He slouches into the TV room and turns on a hockey game. Lets the players slide across his vision: lets the shuffle of skates on ice lull him. His gaze wanders over Karen's books, her stereo, the little notes she leaves to herself about things. Some pictures of her and Lukas as a boy; some pictures of the three of them. Only they weren't three: they were Lukas and her, and sometimes him in the background, smiling foolishly and wishing, wishing, wishing.

It comes back to him now in flashes as always: the day he'd come home from technical college to find his brother sitting at the kitchen table and frowning, picking apart a paper napkin.



He got a glass of juice, asked Dan what was wrong. Things didn't go wrong in Dan's world: parents, friends, school all went his way or he didn't deal with them. So to see him sulking pleased Keith a little, somewhere deep down. Till Dan opened his mouth and sulkily said: "Karen's pregnant."

And wham! It hit him in the gut right there. He had to clutch on to the edge of the fridge so he didn't show weakness in front of Dan, who went after it like a raptor. So he didn't let Dan know that somewhere in the back of his mind he'd always hoped that Karen Rowe would come to her senses and ditch his ass of a brother. Maybe figure out that an older guy had more to offer, even a guy who was only going to take over his father's business.

Karen, chocolate-eyed Karen. With black hair that sometimes, if they were swimming or something, she'd shake down to her waist. It fairly hurt to look at, but he couldn't stop. Keith tried to hide it, stayed away from her now, but maybe his brother had noticed. If he had, he didn't say: Dan had always been about Dan, from the day he was born.

"Yeah, go ahead and laugh," Dan said sourly. "Joke's on me, ha ha." Then he finished picking apart the napkin and just sat there, stared at the little piles of paper.

"Do -- mom and dad know?" Keith already knew the answer to that. If his parents knew already, they'd be in the kitchen with Dan now, screaming at him about all his lost opportunities.

"Hell, no," Dan said. "I'll -- I'll take care of it before they ever know."

And Keith thought, out of nowhere, the hell you will. She'll take care of it, keep it whether you like it or not. He made himself let go of the fridge door and take a drink of juice. Forced a little laugh.

"Maybe -- maybe you should marry her."

And Dan turned on him, hissing, "I'm not going to marry her! First of all, I'm going places, and she's not good enough for -- "

"For marriage?" Keith also hissed, clutching the glass in a sweaty hand. "Good enough to fuck, though, to keep on the side, right? For -- what's it been -- a year? And a half?"

"Shut up!" Dan screamed, the closest to unstrung then that Keith had ever seen. "I don't even know if it's my baby! I asked her and she wouldn't answer me!"

And Keith felt sick and angry, but also so sorry for her that he could barely get out any words. He just stood there for a minute and Dan looked at him and looked away, looked at him and looked away. And Keith put down his glass on the counter so it wouldn't break. He said quietly, "I wouldn't answer either," and he didn't wait for Dan's reply. Just went out to his truck and got in the cab and drove away.

He screamed out of town, pulled off the road somewhere, tried to think straight. Maybe Dan would come to his senses and stop being such a fuckwit. He'd ask her to marry him, and that would be okay, because she'd have someone to help her out with the baby.

A baby -- Dan's baby. Hard enough to think about her in Dan's bed, but now -- and she wasn't even out of high school. Her folks would probably kick her out of the house. Keith had always thought that her mother had been trapped the same way, and she probably would try to kill Karen for this.

Keith remembered the first time he had seen her, really seen her: when Dan had brought her home for a while to watch a b-ball game. She'd gotten into it - - she loved basketball, loved sports. Knew the rules. Dan had beamed at her and then given Keith a look like, see? Even girls from the wallflower pool can be brought up to snuff.

She'd had her hair up in some kind of clip and an off-the-shoulder shirt. And Keith had sat there with them, not saying a word, trying to watch the game but watching her instead. She'd been friendly to him but spent all her time with her head next to Dan's, letting him run his hand over that one bare shoulder. Keith had had to leave before the game was over, mumbling some excuse, because he couldn't watch another minute.

He and Dan and Karen and some of her friends had gone places together: swimming in the creek, tennis at the courts, up to Durham or Chapel Hill a few times, to parties at Duke and in the local clubs. He gave the appearance of legitimacy that they needed: he knew that's why Dan had asked him along. And the girls had always been nice: giggly, young, thoughtless. Karen had always been polite. Dan had sometimes made sneering remarks about his clothes, the way he dressed like a truck driver.

"I am a truck driver, dumbass," he'd said mildly. And Karen had put her hand on Dan's arm and said, "Let's dance," and given him a kind of a look like she was sorry for both of them.

And he'd never danced, no matter how many of Dan's giggly friends had asked him. Just smiled and said no thanks, and watched her like it was a sickness. He'd felt out of control, dizzy, watching her shimmy up close to Dan. He'd drunk a lot more than was good for him. And eventually he'd stopped going. Dan was looking older by then, old enough to not need him any more. And so he'd tried to stop thinking about her, but it caught him at unguarded moments. And now she was going to have his brother's child -- he was absolutely certain that Dan would offer an abortion and that she would say no.

He wasn't sure, but he thought he loved her. He knew he had a crush, but it went farther than how he wanted to put a hand in that hair and follow it all the way down. It was in the way she was friendly to everyone; the way she led Dan out of fights; the way that a really good three-pointer at the last second could make her shriek. The way that she was going to have this baby, whether Dan was there for her or not.

Someone should be there. Someone should. If Dan was going to skip out, if Dan was only going to "take care of it" -- the barely coherent thought had him gunning the truck as fast as he could out to her house, parking with a squeal at the curb. It felt unreal, it felt like fate. He jumped out of the cab and slammed the door. Partway up the walk, he heard her voice from behind him.

"You looking for me, Keith?" She sounded polite, distant. He whirled and peered into the twilight. Across the street was a ratty playground with a broken merry-go-round, and there she sat on the swings, digging into the ground with the toe of her greyed-up Keds. She looked like a kid herself, and as he approached her, he could see the tear tracks on her face. It made him want to punch Dan into next week.

He stood in front of her, toying with a merry-go- round spoke, and had no idea what to say. She didn't help it along -- just sat there sniffling, shoulders shaking. Then she wiped her eyes and she said, "You know what your brother just did?"

Today or two months ago, thought Keith sourly. "He called you up and offered to take you to a doctor in Durham," he said. "And he said he'd pay for everything, and he'd drive you home, and everything would be just fine, and you didn't have to mention anything to your mom or dad."

"Yeah." She bent her head again, and he saw that her hair was loose, flowing forward to cover her face. "Yeah, take care of it. That's exactly what he said. And I asked him, didn't he want to make a go of it? Didn't we want to have a baby together? And he -- "

She sobbed again, somewhere deep in her gut, and Keith tried to stop himself but instead he went and stood next to her, put a hand on her head, told himself he would not, he would not touch her anywhere else.

"He said, he was going places, and he wasn't going to tie himself down now."

"How did you know that?" She still wasn't looking at him.

"We're brothers," he said, and he meant it, but she jerked at that, shaking the chains on the swing.

"You are nothing like him!" she said fiercely, and he wasn't unsure anymore, he knew it like he knew his own heartbeat. He loved her.

"We talked about it earlier. He said almost that exact thing to me. Karen -- you're going to keep the baby."

"Of course I am." She'd stopped crying, but hadn't lifted her head, and though he felt like the worst kind of bastard, his hands followed the curve of her head down to the back of her neck. She sniffled and swiped her hair out of her eyes. "I'm going to keep it and someday I'm going to come back and throw it in his face, what he could have had."

They were both silent again. Keith didn't know what to say -- of course he knew what to say. Marry me, Karen. I'll take care of you. I will. But somehow he knew it was wrong, that offering to take care of her would only make her angrier. Would only make him sound like his brother.

Instead he stammered as she leant into his hand, "Please. Isn't there anything I can do for you?" He felt sick, lust and responsibility warring in him. He wasn't responsible, but maybe he could have stopped it somehow -- talked to Dan, made sure they were being safe.

"It's not your fault, Keith. You don't have to worry about me. I'll figure something out." He can feel her breath against his fingers and he jerks his hand away from her. She leans her head against the chain instead and looks at him. "Why'd you come here?"

"He left you alone," Keith said heatedly. "He left you and went home and sulked about the problem you were causing, as if you could get yourself pregnant." He stalks across the playground, waving his hands and venting. "Poor Dan, what an inconvenience. It's okay to have a girlfriend as long as she keeps her mouth shut -- unless she's cheering for your jump shots or down on her knees."

"He's not like that."

"Close enough."

"He's a good guy, Keith."

"The hell he is, Karen. How can you defend this?"

"I guess I don't need to, if I have you to do it for me." He looks at her then, and she is smiling a little bit. "You my knight in a jean jacket?"

"I wish I could be." As soon as he said it, he wished he could take it back. She gave him another half-smile that turned into a kind of grimace.

"This has nothing to do with you, Keith, you're a good friend. But I feel kind of nauseous."

"Sure, sure. You should be inside the house anyways." He was relieved for the distraction and he hurried to help her out of the swing. She let him walk her across the street but then stopped him at his truck.

"I'll call you if I need anything," she said to him. "I will. I think -- I think you're all I have right now."

"Even to talk," he said. "And let me know how -- the baby's doing, all right? I'll try to talk some sense into Dan."

"Sense," she said, "ha," and then she turned extremely pale and clutched at his arm.

And it was a stupid thing to do, foolish and ill- advised, and he did it anyway, he picked her up and carried her into her house. She weighed nothing at all, and she was breathing shallowly through her mouth. She looked like she was going to faint. In the living room, her mother looked up from a sewing project, startled.

"Keith Scott! What are you doing?"

"She's sick," he said briefly and laid her down on the couch. She grabbed his hand for a minute and then let go and turned to her mother. Keith got the hell out of there. On the way home, he opened the window as far as it would go, breathing in air and breathing out panic and love and mistrust: letting go of everything.



He remembers how sick she had been, morning and night for four months. Dan hadn't even asked. She had finished school before Lukas was born. Keith had tried to talk sense into Dan but obviously, until he got hooked up with Deb there was no sense to the man.

Dan rabbited off to college, but once in awhile Karen had called Keith, let him know how the baby was. Even let him hold Lukas right after he was born. By then Dan was too interested in Deb's baby to even care. But Keith cared, he's cared all of Lukas's life.

He should have married her. He should have asked. But he'd been too chicken, too young, too stupid. He couldn't say the words, and so the two of them ended up close, very close, but too far apart for him to ever touch her again, to ever put his hand on her hair like he'd done seventeen years ago.

And now? Now. The hockey game is entirely over and now it's on some Sports Illustrated infomercial. Lukas hasn't called or come home. And here he is with her things, with her albums full of photos from other dates, other boyfriends, and her bowl full of rose petals from who knows where.

The phone rings. Once, twice, and he picks it up in case it's Lukas. But it isn't. It's Karen. She sounds excited and she doesn't mention that she kissed him in an airport, in front of God and the security guards.

They make small talk. She asks after Lukas and he lies and says the boy just called him. She asks how the Impala restoration for the Boyds is going. He says, fine. And she tells him that Italy is wonderful, that she got him a present. He can hear the smile in her voice.

"What is it?" he asks.

"I'm not telling. And you're going to have to wait five whole weeks to find out, mister."

"Is it bigger than a breadbox?"

"Not telling!"

"Keeping secrets are we? Well, I don't care what it is."


"I hope you're actually learning some cooking over there, not just how to keep secrets."

"I am. Oh Keith, it's wonderful!"

So are you, thinks Keith, staring out the window and seeing Italy. So are you.


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