Cathy Ulrich

How to Say Goodbye When You Really Mean Hello

The teenage girl at the end of the world gathers all of her textbooks, all of them — pre-calc, chemistry, world history — and burns them on the neighbors’ patio. The teenage girl remembers the smell of hamburgers on their grill, the teenage girl remembers their swimming pool laughter.

The teenage girl pours lighter fluid over her textbooks, tries match after stiff paper match till one finally catches, till it burns, till it all burns. The smoke is grey and thin and twists in the air.

Goodbye, the teenage girl thinks, watching the pages curl and brown in the flames. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

*

At the end of the world, the teenage girl doesn’t leave her house much. She remembers her parents hiding her in her bedroom closet, her parents saying don’t come out, don’t come out. She remembers it was dark in her closet, darker than anything. She remembers how quiet it got, how utterly quiet, she thought utterly, utterly, utterly in the dark and the quiet and there was no sound and no light, until she finally pushed the closet door open and the world was filled with thrush and snap and creak.

*

The teenage girl was never popular in school, but she ate lunch with the same girls every day. At night, she recites their names like a prayer: Julie pronounced July, McKenna, Amber, McKenzie who liked Mac, Tegan, Cait, Jerica. The teenage girl never utters the syllables of her own name, doesn’t want to crack the world with them.

It is summer now, and night comes late. The sky purples like a bruise with sunset.

It is quiet at the end of the world. Most of the time, the teenage girl is quiet too.

*

Once, the teenage girl went shoplifting at the corner drugstore with Tegan and Mac. She picked out a lipstick she’d never wear, something Empress, cupped it in her hand, dropped it into her sleeve. She did it casually, like it wouldn’t matter if she got caught. Her whiteness would protect her, her small hands, her overnight retainer, her good grades, her hair growing out from a botched bang cut.

The teenage girl dropped the lipstick tube into the kitchen garbage can at home, buried it under orange rind and crumpled napkin.

She wishes now she had kept it.

She could have any lipstick in the world. She would like to have that one.

*

At night, the teenage girl crawls into her childhood bed, pulls her bedspread up to her chin. There are cans and cans of soup in the kitchen cupboards. There is enough soup for ten teenage girls, there is enough soup for lifetimes. Her parents sensed something was coming; her parents came home with bags and bags of canned soup. The teenage girl eats them cold with drawer-dirty spoons, wipes them off on dishtowels, drops the cans in the outside garbage, like someone might still come and get them, remembers her parents: you like soup, don’t you?

Sometimes, the teenage girl clenches her bedspread in her tightening fists, sometimes she thinks of hamburgers, sometimes she says mama, mama, mama like she is still a little girl.

*

In the morning, the sun always rises. The empty world is filled with its light. The teenage girl blinks and blinks, remembers the darkness of her closet, utterly, utterly.

The teenage girl goes to the kitchen window, where she can see the neighbors’ back yard. She used to watch them sometimes, wineglasses and beer cans, hamburgers stacked on trays, pool water drip on patio concrete.

When she looks now, all she sees is the rustle and flutter of the wind stirring the hollowed remains of her textbooks. They are ash and wordwisp and charred hardcover spine. The wind tugs and tugs at them.

The teenage girl puts her hand up to the window. The teenage girl says goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Cathy Ulrich’s aunt has a swimming pool in her backyard. They sometimes barbecue there. Ulrich’s work has been published in various journals, including CutBank, matchbook and Puerto Del Sol.

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