presents story

I don’t even remember what the fight was about, but what stayed with me was her scratching my arm and screaming that I was a jerk. Succumbing to an immature fit of pique, I broke her vintage Neil Young LP by snapping the vinyl into two jagged pieces.

I watched Cheryl rush out of the apartment. I sat on the sofa, outraged, and glad to be alone. When she returned, her face was slick with sweat. It was July in Los Angeles and the air was hardly cooler outside than in our third story apartment.

I was on my third beer, watching a Star Trek re-run. I was mortified by what I had done in response, but couldn’t say so. Both unhappy, we eventually went to bed without a civil word.

I’d been asleep for several hours, I guess, when Cheryl jabbed me with a finger. ‘You want me to be able to trust, right?’

‘Hey,’ I hissed, ‘that hurt.’

‘It was meant to,’ she said. ‘Rob, I want to get something straight, or as straight as I can.’

I rubbed my eyes. ‘Look, I shouldn’t have broken your album.’

‘I’m sorry for scratching your arm.’

‘Remind me: why did we erupt like that?’

‘Trust,’ she replied. ‘You don’t feel like I trust you.’

I was on the defensive. ‘Do you trust me?’

‘I do, even if you don’t believe it. But I have a thing about trust,’ she said. ‘It’s hard. It’s always been hard for me.’

I flicked my eyes at my luminous clock. It was 2.37 a.m., and I longed to go back to sleep. But Cheryl was set on talking. ‘You want to understand why I said that?’

‘Does it have to be right now?’

‘Yes, right now,’ she insisted. She sat up, brushing her hair back from her eyes.

Cheryl was nothing if not insistent. Course, that was one of the characteristics I liked about her. I liked that at eleven o’clock at night she might insist we go out and get a burger dripping with grease. I liked that she adored baseball, and admired her insistence we watch a game, any game, on TV. And hell, being a man who usually tried to get laid as often as I could, I loved it when she insisted we screw, no matter where we were. So once we did it on Mulholland Drive, with LA’s pearly necklaces of lights below, and another time we came together on our balcony, only partially obscured by the palm tree at the front of the building.

‘This was in Chicago, right, and I was like seven,’ she said. ‘Brad was ten. My father was long gone, so mom was raising us on her own. She did her best, but she was strict. I fled from her, sometimes.’

‘Fled from her?’

‘Don’t talk, Rob,’ she snapped. ‘Just hear me out.’

‘I’m hearing,’ I said.

Cheryl re-arranged her Grateful Dead nightshirt, as if offended by its disarray. ‘We were playing on the drive, but it was really cold. We knew mom wanted us out from under her feet until dinner, and that was about half an hour away, so Brad said, “Let’s go in the garage.”

‘I thought the garage wasn’t going to be a whole lot warmer, but my brother said we had a movable heater in there. He raised up the corrugated iron door, just enough for us to slip under, and we went inside.

‘There was an old folding table in there, as well as the high chair we’d both used when we were babies, some cooked-out pans, an iron that didn’t work, and a battered armchair. I sort of remembered that armchair from the house.

‘At the back, I spotted an old-fashioned suitcase with its lid open.’

‘“There’s only junk in here, Cher,” Brad said.

‘“Hey, come and take a look at this,” I said. I liked to order my big brother around, because he obeyed.

‘Inside the suitcase were boxes of toys. An amazing sight – like a miniature toy shop. Not wrapped; none of them were wrapped. Brad and I looked at each other, wondering what were these doing there.

‘“These are for Christmas, Cheryl,” Brad said. “They’re our presents for Christmas. Mom’s put them there.”

‘I knew he was right. For a moment, I thought we should leave everything as it was, but couldn’t resist taking a look at what was inside, and perhaps play with something. Turns out Brad had caught sight of a remote-controlled truck – army truck, I think it was – and couldn’t help himself. He removed it from the suitcase, and from its box. I figured the truck wouldn’t work without batteries. Turns out it had batteries in, so it’d be ready to play with on Christmas Day.

‘I pulled out things that were clearly bought for me. One was a sequin set. You like filled in the outlines of animals and dolphins by pushing in these tiny colored sequins into this velvety board. It was cool. My friend Tiffany had a set, and I’d asked mom for one. I’d asked for my own several times a week.

‘I sat on the armchair, which smelled, but I didn’t mind. I took out the velvet boards. There was a dolphin, an elephant, a tiger. Then the garage door opened, blowing in this whole load of cold air, and standing there was our mom.

‘It couldn’t have been scarier if it’d been the school principal.’

I was looking at Cheryl now; her voice had lost its usual vigor, and she was facing away from me, her eyes focused on her Rolling Stones poster across the room.

‘“What are you two up to in here?” she asked.

‘“Nothing,” Brad lied. But the evidence was all around. The truck was spiraling around his feet, until he stopped pressing the lever.

‘“Brad? Cheryl?” she boomed. “What on earth have you been doing?” The rage in her voice was such that I found myself shaking. “Let me get this straight,” she said. “You broke into the suitcase and took out the toys, right?”

‘“The case was already open,” I replied, but I knew it was no good, and I didn’t really like to lie.

‘“Only the truck and the sequin set,” my brother added.

‘Mom’s voice was harsh. “And who told you could do that? I trusted you, guys. I trusted you when I said that your Christmas presents were already here, but you weren’t to look for them.”

Cheryl sighed. ‘I moaned something about not really looking for them, just that we found them, and we did what kids do. We played with them.

‘“This is what we’ll do,” mom said. “Brad, put your truck back in the box; Cheryl, put those sequin boards back, too.”

‘I could hardly see for tears, but I managed to put the toy away.

‘Mom carried the suitcase out of the garage. We followed, like obedient ducklings, not daring to look at one another. In the kitchen, her mouth a thin pencil line, she served us canned tomato soup and crackers, and turned the radio up. Brad started to say something, but she shushed him.

‘“What I’m going to do is take them to the shelter on 4th Street. They have kids there who won’t be expecting anything from Santa.”

‘Brad howled at the injustice. “But Mom,” he said, “we didn’t even play with all the presents. We only played with the truck and Cheryl with the sequin set. How about you just take those?”

‘“Don’t bargain with me,” she said, staring down her nose.

‘I remember running out of the kitchen to my room, where I blubbered for hours. At some point, I even told Brad to go away, when he was only trying to be nice to me. I still feel bad about that… but maybe that’s why we barely talk nowadays.’

I touched Cheryl’s soft dark hair. ‘And what happened that Christmas?’

‘Mom kept her word, in the worst way. We didn’t get any of the presents from the suitcase. All we were given was something from Aunt Caroline in Lexington.’

‘That it?’ I asked. ‘Didn’t your mom relent?’

In a low voice, Cheryl replied, ‘She gave us a family size candy bar, is all.’

‘A candy bar? How can a mother be so evil?’

Cheryl turned to me. ‘Evil? I can’t think of my mother being evil, Rob.’

‘What then?’

She shrugged. ‘So that’s what I feel when it comes to the idea of trust.’

I nodded. ‘That’s the most poignant story I’ve ever heard.’

Cheryl slid down under the covers. ‘I never did get a sequin set, after all.’

Within moments, her confession spent, she was asleep, but I lay there, my arm under my head, wondering how I would have felt if that had happened to me. In truth, it was inconceivable that my parents would have punished me, or my sister Emmy, in any such way. They loved us, and they trusted us not to fuck up. Was that what Cheryl and her brother had done? I couldn’t believe they had.

I watched Cheryl, feeling an incredible protectiveness for her. Our fight a few hours earlier didn’t matter anymore, although my arm still bore the scar from her scratch. I just wanted to be able to nurture her anew. And I began to glimpse why she was, or could be, an edgy, mistrustful young woman.

‘Trust,’ I murmured, shifting onto my side. What would I have to do to rebuild Cheryl’s belief in people, her facility to trust? Could I restore her ability to hear that word, and not be cast back to an Illinois garage in the dead of winter, with her brother, and a tyrannical, punitive mother?

I didn’t know. You don’t get many answers at 3 a.m. in the morning.


A few days later, two blocks from home, I passed a family having a yard sale. I stopped, as I often do, because I loved old science fiction comics, and yard sales often had such treasures.

My gaze fell on a boxed sequin set, its corners bashed, but otherwise intact. It was on sale for a dollar fifty. Of course, I had no idea it was like the set Cheryl once played with, but I pulled out my wallet.

And then I hesitated, imagining that Cheryl would laugh at the impulse behind my gift, as if, with such an offering, I could repair the traumatic gash in her childhood memories. I put my wallet back, and walked on, because I knew that resolving traumas of the past was impossible, whether you spent a dollar fifty, or a million bucks.

When I got in, I dialled Cheryl’s cell phone.



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