* — September 19, 2017
This is the Way Things Are Now
Kristy Hom, 2009


1. CATHERINE AND HELEN: In high school, they would sleep over in the same bed on the weekends. Catherine would comment on Helen’s sleep-talking in the mornings, and Helen would cover her ears and say, Don’t tell me I don’t want to know. Now, Catherine has a boyfriend she more or less lives with, and she is saying things like, Thank you for coming for the weekend, Helen, and here is your air mattress on the living room floor.
2. CHRISTMAS, 2014: Every year, this one no exception, their parents give Helen and Evan and Grace each a tree ornament meant to commemorate some life experience in the last year. What will mine be this year, says Helen, Congratulations you’ve had a meltdown? Evan suggests, Congratulations you work at a coffee shop, as a possible alternative.
3. Early in her meltdown, in a weirdly warm part of November, Helen calls Catherine from Washington Square Park, on a day when it has just stopped raining. She stands oriented to Fifth Avenue with her back to the fountain, at the edge of a puddle, looking down into her reflection which spreads out in a murky wobble. She apologizes. Catherine is glad to hear from her. Catherine appreciates her saying she’s sorry for being a shitty, selfish friend; sorry for hating her best friend’s boyfriend for no reason other than liking how it feels to have an opinion. Please also tell Alexander I’m sorry, Helen says, Please tell him I’m sure he’s actually a nice person.
4. Alexander and Catherine already know that if they have children, they will not raise them in the suburbs. And Helen really hates it, lately, the way she can so readily co-opt facts about other people for her own self-deprecation—e.g. My best friend Catherine lived much of her childhood in Prague; for comparison, I grew up entirely in fucking Westchester—as if this were the whole point of Catherine’s life, to stand in contrast. Nevertheless the fact remains: Helen really has no idea where she will raise her children, if she ever has them. She may not even want them.
5. Catherine, standing in contrast, seems possessed of a striking certainty with regards to her theoretical children, especially for someone who used to say in high school: I mostly just hope I have many, many affairs.
6. FOR COMPARISON: Catherine says, age fifteen and twirling the spoon around her coffee mug, In at least one of them, I’ll throw a glass of water in his face, and that will be it, the end, I’ll be gone. Helen makes an expression to suggest that this sounds silly. Catherine looks out the window and adds, I think I’d also like one to happen somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea.
7. In Westchester, Rye to be exact, there are sprinklers on timers on the athletic fields behind the public high school. It is Catherine who suggests they run through them, on a night in May when they are 17, and it is Catherine who wants to do it again seven years later. It is Helen who says from the passenger seat, seven years later, No way definitely not, because this is the first time they have seen each other in more than six months, and Catherine in the car has just said the thing about wanting to have eventual babies with Alexander, and Helen is not at all interested in acting out some pretense of frolic on a football eld at night. Anyway, then it starts to rain.
8. WHAT HELEN’S MOTHER SAYS ABOUT HER: You were always very set in your ways.
9. WHAT HELEN’S MOTHER SAYS ABOUT EVAN: Why does it matter that we always said Evan was a better actor than you were? Couldn’t we let him have one thing to be better at?
10. EVAN AND GRACE AND HELEN’S TREE ORNAMENTS, RESPECTIVELY: The Eiffel Tower for studying abroad; a squash racquet, self-explanatory; and a paintbrush for taking that one extension school course at The New School last spring.
11. Catherine’s bed, in high school, is worn and beautiful like an old cloth doll. Her sheets have a pattern of blanched pink vines, and she keeps black and white postcards taped to her wall. When she shuts off the lamp, the light through the window from the house next door falls over both Catherine and Helen’s long hair on their pillows. In the mornings, they eat toast in Catherine’s bed.
12. On a napkin during a slow day at Caffeine in December, Helen writes, the tension between the past and the present will ruin you. Then she throws it away, because how prosaic. She doesn’t know what else to do, so she cleans the espresso machine.
13. ON THE WAY HOME FROM CAFFEINE: She always cries. This is a main feature of the meltdown she’s had, is having, along with this bombed-out sensation in her chest all the time.
14. I am a very bad person, she says. (You’re being far too hard on yourself, says her father.)
15. WHILE THE GILMORE GIRLS ARE FIGHTING ON TELEVISION: Helen says, Grace, I’m sorry I have been a horrible, aloof sister. It is Grace’s first night back and they are watching Netflix with the volume up too high. Grace says, I think you haven’t really been horrible per se but thank you. She says, I really hate to see you this way. Helen turns her face into the cushions of the couch and starts crying, again. Can you move over please, says Grace.
16. ADJUSTMENT DISORDER: It does sound like something you would have, the whole family agrees.
17. GRACE’S EX-BOYFRIEND: Grace says, while they are making Christmas cookies, I called him yesterday. Helen looks up from frosting a reindeer to ask, Why? Grace says, shaking green sprinkles onto her wreath, Because while you were crying on the couch the other night I was thinking about how difficult it is for me to be here for you. And that made me feel like I needed to thank him, for being there for me when I was going through my thing. Helen says, Wait what thing? Casually she replies, Oh, after we left Rye. After we moved to the city I was always walking around campus, just crying and crying. I was really crazy.
19. WHAT THEIR MOTHER SAYS ABOUT THAT: I always liked him. (Thanks, we know, says Grace.)
20. WHAT HELEN SAYS ABOUT THAT: Grace, why didn’t you tell me?
21. CATHERINE’S BED NOW: Is it as comfortable as the old one? Helen has no way of knowing.
22. TERRIBLE FIGHT ON CHRISTMAS: You are always paddling against the fucking stream, says Evan, not even looking at her, and he throws the wooden spoon into the sink and huffs off to the living room. If this family doesn’t stop fighting, says their father, sadly, and doesn’t finish the sentence.
23. Evan is only going to be home for twelve days of his winter break anyway, after which he is going back to Middlebury to be in a play. Before the terrible fight, he and Helen both agree he should spend the whole time at Caffeine, learning his lines and letting her ply him with espresso drinks. One day he actually shows up. She makes him a macchiato, and then another.
24. MEET-CUTE: Catherine drops her commuter pass getting off the T. Alexander chases after her, up the stairs and down the block and into the stationary store in Harvard Square, where she is looking for a birthday card. They go out for a glass of wine. He asks for her phone number.
25. WHAT HELEN NEVER GOT THAT YEAR: A birthday card. But how petulant to hold that particular grudge.
26. BIRTHDAYS: Catherine’s is October 3 and Helen’s is May 14. When Catherine turns seventeen Helen brings cupcakes, and they sit on the steps at lunch in their sweaters and jumpers and slipping-down school socks, and around them the air is just slightly too brisk. They drink coffee from the cafeteria, the sun warming the stone steps, the wind making the leaves bristle down the driveway. One day this will all seem very far away, says Catherine, while Helen is trying to light a candle and not succeeding. Helen smirks because how misty and all-knowing Catherine can make herself sound. In the end they leave a dozen dead matches piled on the steps and go back to class, Helen carrying their leftover cupcakes and Catherine bestowing them on passing classmates in the halls, the ones she likes. Actually, I just liked that last one’s earrings, she confides as they walk into English class, I don’t even I know her at all.
27. Twelfth Night, Evan replies. I don’t know why I didn’t ask you earlier, Helen says, feeling sheepish. They are drinking beer on Christmas Eve with most of the lights off, after their parents have gone upstairs. Across the room, Grace has fallen asleep, hair streaming down over the side of her face, falling over the edge of the couch, very nearly touching the floor. Evan says, And what about you? I mean, are you enjoying your life here?
28. CATHERINE’S TEXT: Feeling spontaneous… A and I are going to come down to NYC next week for New Year’s… let’s meet up?
29. CONTRITION: And Helen really is very sorry for being the way she’s been about Alexander. But the fact remains that she doesn’t like him, and as soon as she reads the text she realizes the problem hasn’t gone away. She isn’t going to be mean about it any more, isn’t going to be vocal about it, but it doesn’t change the fact that she doesn’t really want to see him, not at all. Not a bit. And this is maybe the way it will always be.
30. Evan says, Helen what could possibly be in that text message that is making you cry.
31. PRAGUE, WASTED ON CATHERINE: She always says, Honestly I can’t say I remember that much about it.
32. HELEN’S TEXT: Yes! Let’s do New Year’s.
33. In Rye, if their parents are fighting, they go to Evan’s room and Helen and Grace sit on the floor. Then Evan climbs up on the bed and performs the argument with extraordinary flourish. He has a pair of glasses he wears to be their mother and an Oxford shirt he wears to be their father. Evan is going to be famous famous famous, Helen says, and Grace says, Now be me! When Evan is being Grace, he wears pink, and when he’s being Helen, he wears a headband. If things get especially loud downstairs, he sings pop songs at the top of his lungs, or if that fails they just say, Grace, cover your ears, and Grace will put her head down in Helen’s lap.
34. Their mother says, One day you will be married and you will see, you will see, this is simply how it is, couples fight, they simply do.
35. BEGINNING OF THE TERRIBLE FIGHT: Evan says, while they are doing the dishes after Christmas dinner, Look don’t be offended, but as for me I never intend to move back in with Mom and Dad.
36. Grace re-activates her membership at the Park Avenue and 23rd Street New York Health & Racquet Club. Grace does not want to go to the movies with Helen and Evan and their parents on the day after Christmas because she needs to practice. Helen and Evan go to the movies with their parents but do not speak to each other, because of the fight.
37. Evan paces around the living room doing this one monologue over and over and over and over again, always messing up in the same place and then swearing. And Helen knows the line herself actually, but she just keeps sitting there on the couch with her knees crossed, eating her bowl of cereal, not looking up.
38. Helen is getting to be very skillful with her latte art. (You’re becoming very glib about yourself, says her father.)
39. ADJUSTMENT DISORDER: For paperwork purposes you know we need to say something, says the psychiatrist, whom her parents send her to see in the weeks before Christmas, because the meltdown is seeming less and less likely to resolve itself, and they are concerned. The psychiatrist clarifies, It just means you’re having an intense emotional reaction. And in a way that’s just how being human can be.
40. THE PSYCHIATRIST SAYS: It’s okay to miss her. Why don’t we just take a moment and miss her?
41. HELEN SAYS: I think I have significantly over-shared.
41. THEIR FATHER SAYS: I never wanted to go to therapy myself.
44. GRACE SAYS: At school they give you all the sessions you want, for free. I think it’s great.
45. EVAN SAYS: I don’t need therapy, I’m a performer and I’m perilously in touch with my own emotions; there is nothing a therapist could reveal to me that I don’t know; my heart is on my sleeve.
46. CATHERINE SAYS, ON THE PHONE: Seriously I’m glad to know you’re taking care of yourself, it’s important.
47. When Helen turns 17, Catherine calls up to say, Wear a bathing suit under your school uniform, don’t forget. Helen makes some insinuation that this sounds a little juvenile, but in the end she promises, she will. What a memory, too: She’s on the landline and Grace is in the background saying, Can I use that now can you please get off right now? The next day after school Catherine says, Okay so did you ever know about the sprinklers? Then, with a faintly glamorous smile, Oh just you wait. After play rehearsal, the pair of them sit together on the bleachers until dusk settles in, until the lawn goes up, all at once, in rows of long and waving plumes. Later, out there in her bathing suit under the darkening swoop of sky, bare feet in wet grass, Helen tips her head back to watch this one particular spout reach its height and start to fall.
48. CATHERINE, FROM SEVERAL SPRINKLERS AWAY: You’re supposed to run through them, Helen, not stand there considering them. Run! Frolic!
49. NEW YEAR’S EVE: Shit I love your earrings, says Catherine. Alexander says, Hey how’s it going.
50. HELEN, DRUNK, LATER: I’m sorry Alexander, did Catherine even tell you that, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. It’s only this is the thing: I have never wanted to lose her.
51. Their father says, Sit here on the couch, and so they do—Evan in his ratty Middlebury College sweatshirt, not looking at Helen. He displays a careful expression of defiance. She is terrifically hungover. Their father before them is looking from one to the other and back again; he says something about new year, new leaf, let’s resolve to get along. And then Grace comes clattering from upstairs, long-legged, springy, but dragging the squash racquet dully at her side so that it thunks down and down and down and down the stairs, the thunks reverberating in Helen’s fuzzy skull, thunk thunk thunk. Can you not, she snarls. I thought you were turning over a new leaf on the spiteful front, Grace says, and with showy indolence drops the squash racquet to the floor. From the kitchen their mother says, Grace for God’s sake you will break that squash racquet and then you’ll be sorry—and Evan snorts, because for as long as any of them can remember their mother has been telling them that X is going to break and it’s going to be your fault, you were careless, you were trying to make a point, and it will be broken and then you’ll be sorry. In this moment, Helen catches Evan’s eye.
52. IN RYE, THE STORY HAS IT: Helen is seven and Evan is five and Grace is three, and because of the sandwiches, which Helen and Evan insist they’ve finished but have actually conspired to throw away, their father shuts the trash can abruptly and says, Come into the living room right now please, I want to have a talk with both of you. Interlude: a stern seminar, somewhere offstage, on the topic of how lying is wrong. Eventually, glumly, they rejoin Grace at the kitchen table. She looks up brightly from her half-eaten sandwich. She asks, Dad? He says, Yes? She says, Do you think you could also talk to me in the living room? Could I also get to do that?
53. Their mother imposes herself on the terrible fight. You have always been this way, the two of you, I mean really. Always coming home after school, complaining to me about your day, and bickering with each other, I mean when are you ever going to start pointing out what’s going well instead of what’s going wrong? And Grace, quiet until now, just drying the dishes and saying nothing, flares up from nowhere, slams a saucepan to the countertop. She hisses, Don’t you think we might all ask the same of you?
54. THIS THE YEAR IT FINALLY OCCURS TO HELEN TO ASK: What did you even talk about in the living room? Their father says, I asked her how her day was going. She said it was going pretty well.
55. HELEN, DRUNK, STILL: She seizes Catherine lovingly by the wrist and leans in close to her ear. On the television, blurry in the background, the Times Square Ball shimmers and descends. Take my glass of water, Helen murmurs. Look at Alexander. Remember what you always used to say?
56. CONSIDER THE EMPHASIS: Helen says, You’re meant to say crownèd, not crowned, you know. Evan says, Of course I know I just sometimes forget. There is no one else there, and they regard each other from either side of this impasse, and in the silence between them the espresso machine hums. Finally she says, More? But he pushes the empty cups towards her; he says, I’ve already had far too much.
57. BECAUSE I AM YOUR MOTHER: Grace, age eight, starts to cry. She says, But all three of us really want popcorn. We really just want it so much. So you’re just making us really sad right now. Don’t you care that we’re so sad because of you?
58. MOMENT OF CRISIS: Catherine says, You exhaust me, and twists her arm away from Helen’s fingers.
59. THREE, TWO, ONE, HAPPY: 2015 arrives, and as it does, Helen swings at the glass of water with the back of her hand so that it spills all over the tabletop and the floor, spills into Catherine’s purse, spills over her stockings and the knees of Alexander’s stupid-looking pants, spills everywhere. I can’t believe I came here tonight with just the two of you, says Helen, rising. She says, I must be insane. Catherine is saying, Jesus Christ, Helen, and shaking the contents of her purse out on the bar. And all around them everyone is singing, while Alexander is putting his hand on the sequined back of Catherine’s dress.
60. When she lets herself into the apartment in the early hours of this year, still wearing her celebratory paper hat and crying freely (as she figures must just go without saying by now), she finds her father sitting up. Remember, she says sadly from the doorway, and he looks up from his book, Remember how angry I used to get if you waited up for me in high school? How childish and over-supervised it made me feel? Do you remember the way it made me feel like I was your science experiment and not your child? Do you remember the way I used to scream at you? He says, Are you all right? Can I get you a drink?
61. Evan packs up to go back to school. Before he leaves the two of them spend a morning in the living room running his lines, the sun falling in through the apartment windows. When he reaches the problem monologue, he gets up on the couch and delivers the whole thing with extraordinary flourish. Impeccable, says Helen, sitting on the floor, except remember: always crownèd, never crowned. He says, Stop it, stop, I know. Then Grace, from the top of the stairs, rubbing her eyes, says, Some of us were trying to sleep you know. Cover your ears Grace, they say together. And Grace, showing a small, shy smile, plodding down the stairs, says solemnly, You are going to break that couch, Evan.
62. GOING AWAY DINNER: Their father raises his drink. He says, To me it is a delight in every way to have us all together. And he takes a quick, deep breath. Anyway, cheers. Break a leg, Evan, and we will see you at your play. And their five wine glasses, making contact, chime. Their mother drinks, looks at her napkin and back up again, a little teary, maybe. She says, Evan I hope you’ve remembered to pack everything and did you print your ticket yet like I asked you to do?
63. SQUASH: You can come with me, says Grace, but I’m not going to go easy on you. I’m going to destroy you. And do you even know where your goggles are? I don’t have a second pair to lend you.
64. HELEN’S TEXT: I’m sorry and I don’t know what to do anymore.
66. ACT II SCENE III: “I was adored once, too.”
67. PRAGUE: Catherine says, One day we’ll go together. They are sixteen and lying on a blanket in Catherine’s backyard, eating pizza, looking at the sky, and can think of no reason such a thing would fail to come to pass. It seems certain, they have set it in motion just by saying as much. She says, From there we’ll go on to Vienna and we’ll listen to orchestras. We’ll bring nothing more than we can fit in our backpacks. We’ll walk beside the Vltava and the Danube and drink beer in cafes. We’ll meet numberless men in Prague and Vienna, she says. Helen laughs, Will we?
68. On his way to the 3:32 out of Penn Station, Evan stops by for a final espresso. He says, I hope to see you at the play next month, by which point I’ll have learnèd all my lines. She bursts out laughing. He says, Wait stop don’t cry. She says, It’s just I’m very moved and also I don’t know.
69. Grace says, flung out on the couch, Lucky you, lucky you, you still get me for two more weeks. Do you want to watch the next episode? Move over please, move over. You are, as always, completely crowding my space.
70. ALWAYS: The air is light and sweet; a thin cloud slips quickly over the sun and keeps moving on. Everything shadows, then lightens: the backyard, the side of the house, Catherine’s long bright hair. She turns her face to rest towards Helen’s, leans it on the crook of her own bent arm. She says, We will, we will. Helen giggles. Catherine lets her forehead touch Helen’s shoulder. She says, It won’t end well. They’ll always miss us. Always, always. They’ll think of us often, and wonder how it happened like it did.

Originally published in No Tokens Issue No. 5. View full issue & more.

Kate Doyle’s writing has appeared in Meridian, No TokensBodega, the Franklin Electric Reading Series, Lamprophonic, and Sundays at Erv’s. She earned her MFA at NYU and was a graduate fellow at NYU Paris.