The white popcorn ceiling looms eerily close, and there’s too much pastel. On the walls. The nightstands, the sheets. Andy Ramor grasps the wooden safety rail and leans over, peeking at an amorphous form in the bottom bunk. Justen Miller’s curly red hair splashes against his pillow, and his lips purse and release as he dreams on.
Andy eschews the creaky wooden ladder. Instead, he grasps the safety rails and lowers his body as if performing a reverse pull-up. His heartbeat slows to its regular pace once his feet hit the floor. If the boys had been friends, he would have just used the ladder, but it was their parents who were close—Mr. Ramor and Mrs. Miller, especially. It was a friendship that came from having children in the same grade, but it was enough for Mr. Ramor to arrange for his son to vacation with the Millers while he and his wife attended an out-of-town convention about unionizing local hardware stores. Mrs. Ramor—Mrs. Amy, as she preferred—didn’t make many American friends. Or friends in general.
Andy’s last memory before walking to Justen’s house was the bob of his father’s pasty white face and braided goatee as he tried to console his son: Mrs. Miller kindly agreed to take you on their family vacation to Orange Beach while your mom and me are at the conference. To be clear, son, I want you to go meet a girl or two. Put down your books and have some fun.
Now sixteen, Andy didn’t understand why he couldn’t stay home by himself, but he honored his father’s request. He left his books piled knee-high on the floor beside his bed. At any rate, meeting a girl just might redeem his spring break. His cheeks blush as he imagines finally replacing his fake first kiss story, one he had modeled after Justen’s and had been telling for years. He steps over tangled controller wires and wadded bathing suits with white salt rings, both impressed and squeamish at the mess Justen created in the last thirty-six hours. He shuts the door quietly.
The kitchen tiles kiss Andy’s bare feet, send chills zooming up his legs. Every condo kitchen in Orange Beach looks the same, and room 937 is no exception with its fake granite counter tops, its oversized tile floor, and its wall full of wooden cupboards that no vacationer ever completely fills. Mrs. Miller has stocked the kitchen with cereal, white bread, deli meat, ground beef, and Sprite—things his father only buys when his mother is out of town. Andy picks up a yellow package of Sunbeam bread and flips it to the back. Only seventy calories per slice. Yesterday, he asked Mrs. Miller to give him the heel of the bread as she dangled it over the trash can. He insisted it was his favorite piece—a lie—and had eaten half of it before he realized he was just imitating his mother.
Creaking door hinges alert Andy to Mrs. Miller bounding down the hallway, laundry basket fluttering with every step. Out of courtesy to Andy, who is excessively allergic to dogs, the Millers left Bear at home, but small tufts of his golden dog hair still varnish her clothes. Flowing pajamas shorts and a white spaghetti tank top accentuate the slight red glow of her sunburnt shoulders and thighs. Her shoulder-length brown hair is pinned into her trademark messy bun; a few loose strands hug her ears. Andy thinks the bun complements her pajamas. It also works with the knee-length dresses she wears at the front of the classroom and the blue jeans and black kaftan she sported when she used to pick the boys up from baseball practice.
“Good morning, Andy. Did you sleep okay?”
Andy pauses briefly before answering. “Quite good. Need any help with the laundry?”
“Don’t worry about that. Justen’s not still sleeping, is he? I’ll go wake him up. And keep making yourself at home.” She bounces further down the hallway, her bun quivering with each step.
“Is Mr. Miller coming down today?”
“No.” She turns sideways and pushes the basket against the wall. She clenches the handles, causing her knuckles to whiten. She sniffles. Andy sits on his stool in the kitchen, sipping water and massaging a swollen lymph node on his neck. She dumps laundry into the machine without discretion: soiled towels, delicates, colors, bedspreads, all combined into one ultra-large load. He forgets that people use the machine. Even though his mother manages three lucrative hardware stores, she insists on washing their laundry by hand.
Andy remembers washing with her last week. Andy and Mrs. Amy sat on upside-down five-gallon buckets on the back patio. They didn’t say much. They listened to the eternal drone of traffic on Lincoln Road. Andy rubbed blisters into the knuckles of his fingers as the two strafed soapy garments against their wooden washboards. He was equally amazed and frustrated that his mother managed to wash for hours with no other consequence than slightly dry hands. “Asians, we people take care of laundry. Really good washing by hand.” On the rare occasions his white friends came to his house, they always asked if their washboards were window shutters, and Andy always told them that they were.