Emily O’Neill

[CREATIVE NONFICTION] Painted by Numbers


I met her because Matt was so in love it turned to fear. He called me while I was shopping on Route 17 with my mom to tell me the girl he often goaded into playing checkers or Scrabble at the coffee shop where I used to work wanted to hang out.


But no, I met her before Matt. At a party, I rescued my sister from where there was too much vodka plus pushy teenage boys trapping us both in corners. I arrived after most of the house was already drunk, including my sister, who I poured into Becky’s car. Maggie, sitting on the arm of a couch, wearing overalls. Everybody knew her but me.


But I’d seen her before that too. In the diner we all held court in, taking up the whole smoking section after midnight. The pizzeria lot where everyone parked to skate the bank drive-thru. Camera around her neck. At Taco Bell. At QuikCheck. Swimming in somebody else’s pool. The girlfriend of a boy I’d kissed a dozen times. She painted Ed Gein for her high school art show entry. She was a friend of everybody’s friend. Nobody bothered to introduce her.


Matt made me come with him to Westwood to see her. A chaperone. Someone to take the pressure off, to make him look cool or normal-adjacent, to fill gaps in conversation. She invited us both to stay over on the pull-out sofa. To get slushies and six kinds of chips and dig through her thrift store VHS collection. Matt bailed, but I stayed the whole summer. Maggie drove me to the grocery store where I organized trays in the gourmet case, stocked flavored water, made breadcrumbs out of whatever went stale. We’d sit in the parking lot with our canned energy drinks, chain-smoking in her car while I called out on my shifts, stripping off my dull brown uniform shirt in exchange for whatever clothes of hers were available in the backseat.


One night we drove to a Rutgers house party hours south of our suburb. We played ping pong in a yard full of strangers. Maggie and Bill Stern were Team Mitzvah, high-fiving after every point. I kissed a friend’s Misfits tattoo and fell asleep with a beer in my hand. We got arrested on the drive home when we couldn’t explain to the cop what we were doing out just before dawn with Sean who worked at the perfume factory, all of our eyes bloodshot from driving loops along the highway, half-lost, mostly just unwilling to be at home.


That house isn’t there anymore. Not in a way I can get to. Her grandma doesn’t own it anymore because her grandma is gone now. Her mom moved out afterward and Maggie followed. But before it was gone, it was a time capsule. Pristine mid-century furniture, a massive piano in a sitting room no one sat in. The hollow, locking door between the two sides of the house. Beyond it, the neon cave of wonders I squatted in for my last months before college. Maggie and Sherry painted every room as bright a color as they could find and stuffed them all to the ceiling with CDs and movies and hand-painted objects that glittered in the forever-low light of several constantly running TVs. The three of us spent that first and last summer together on the unfolded sofa bed catching up on everything my family hadn’t let me watch. Sid & Nancy bled into Blue Velvet and then grilled cheese for dinner.


I know the way there blindfolded, could climb into my mom’s Jeep tonight like I did obsessively for years. Slide past the flooded football field and around a jackknife curve to park under drooling pines and walk up around the side of the house to where we’d sit with the ashtray until our eyes got tight, so young that our teeth weren’t yellow yet. The hedges, wilder by the day. I have it all frozen pictures. Maggie in a grease-stained Chicken Delight shirt, mid-laugh.


One of our pictures landed in the kitchen of my apartment—a painting we made together the first patio night after Matt’s panicked phone call. It happened on a canvas she’d started to collage and then discarded. Little girl glued sideways in one corner. I smeared acrylic over her until she was only an outline to fill in.


Emily O’Neill teaches writing and tends bar in Boston, MA. Her debut poetry collection, Pelican, is the inaugural winner of YesYes Books’ Pamet River Prize for women and nonbinary writers and the winner of the 2016 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Series. Her second collection, a falling knife has no handle, is forthcoming from YesYes in 2018. She is the author of three chapbooks and her recent work has appeared in Cutbank, Jellyfish, Redivider, Salt Hill, and Washington Square.

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