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Reality boy, p.15
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       Reality Boy, p.15

           A. S. King
 
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  “Fine. You’re right. We’ll go to my house. I can run in and get the pants and run out again.”

  “Exactly,” she says. “You can thank the junkman’s daughter for saving you fifty bucks, too.”

  I laugh. “Yes. Thank you.”

  As I drive, I finally find Lisi on the trapeze. I tell her about college and about how Snow White said I could go.

  “Gerald?”

  “Yeah?”

  “Did you hear what I said?” Hannah asks.

  “Shit. Sorry. I was spaced-out again. What did you say?”

  “I said that I’ve never been in a gated community before,” she says.

  “Oh,” I say. “It’s really not as special as it seems. I mean, there’s a gate. And a little booth with a security guard. That’s about it.”

  “Sounds a lot like my house, eh?” She laughs.

  “You know, it’s not as bad as you think it is, your house. It’s weird for you, but it’s not like—a freak show or anything.”

  “If only they made a reality TV show out of us… then you’d see just how weird it is,” she says.

  I pull into the drive and stop at the gate. The security guard knows me, so he makes the gate go up without me having to enter my pass code into the box. He waves. Hannah waves at him and he smiles. I think maybe he’s happy for me.

  Hannah stays in the car and I run into the house and grab my pants. It takes me all of two minutes. Hannah says, “That was fast.”

  As I back down the drive, I catch Mom looking out the upstairs window like a woman from one of those old short stories they make us read in school. Like she wants to jump out.

  43

  EPISODE 2, SCENES 23–35

  MIKE, THE KID from two doors over who Tasha was now “dating” even though it made Dad cringe every time Mom said it, was over at our house. His parents had signed a waiver so he could be part of the show.

  He and Tasha were making homemade cookies together in the kitchen.

  Dad was still at work. Mom was at the kitchen table yelling out the amounts and ingredients like the good, wholesome chaperone she was expected to be.

  When I wandered into the kitchen, Tasha and Mike were having a great time, throwing teaspoons of flour at each other. And sugar. The director gave me the hand signal to stop and go away. I played dumb and kept walking in. I saw from the whiteboard next to him that they were on take three of the same scene, so I tiptoed in and played it very innocent and watched the scene unfold.

  Only when Tasha took a wet-with-batter spatula and smacked Mike on the cheek with it did it begin to get ugly. He did the same then, with a spoon. She said, “Ow!” and gave him a warning glance. He said sorry, but didn’t mean it. So then she said, “You better watch it, because I could pour this whole bowl of batter down your pants.”

  “Cut!” the director said. He looked to Tasha. “Pants? Come on. You’re twelve!”

  “Shoot,” Tasha said. “I meant to say shirt, but pants seemed more real. Sorry.”

  “Mike lays in Tasha’s bed all the time without his pants on,” I said.

  Everyone got quiet and looked at me. Then they looked at Tasha and Mike, who looked around the room. Mike looked as if he was figuring out which way to run. Tasha looked for the first person to hit. Mike was closest.

  She slapped him across the face and then ran to Mom and buried her head in Mom’s shoulder, leaving a glob of cookie batter on her sweatshirt.

  Mom held Tasha at arm’s length and said, “Is this true?”

  “Of course not!” Tasha said. “You know Gerald is retarded. You said so yourself.”

  “I’m not retarded,” I said.

  “Are so,” she said. “And you’re gay.”

  Nanny transformed at that moment. She suddenly didn’t care what her hair looked like or whether her dress was the right color for the scene. She didn’t care where her designer purse was or whether her bottled water was the right brand.

  She told the cameras to stop rolling and took me and Mom into the living room, away from Mike and Tasha, who were still fighting in the kitchen.

  “Calling a young child gay is awful,” Nanny said. “It’s an unacceptable word. Totally.”

  “The kid craps in my shoes and you say Tasha using the word gay is harmful?” Mom asked.

  “Jill!”

  “What?” Mom said.

  “He’s sitting right he-ah!” Nanny said.

  “So?” Mom said. “You can see why I think there’s something wrong with him, right?” Mom got up and went back into the kitchen just as Mike was running out the door.

  Nanny turned to me and gave me a sympathetic look. “Was it true what you said about him being in Tasha’s bed?”

  “Yes,” I said.

  “And you were here, too? You and Lisi?”

  I nodded.

  “Right,” she said. “I think I know what to do here, Gerald.” She looked at me with a smile. Like a real nanny.

  The next day was the last day of filming. We had to do the usual end-of-episode family meeting. Dad was home from work for an hour, tops, still in his work suit, and doing that thing with his ankles that he does when he’s stressed out. Like neck rolls, but with ankles. Around and around. Clockwise, then counterclockwise. His tarsal bones cracked each time, like popcorn. Lisi and I sat next to him.

  Mom and Tasha were sitting together on the love seat. Ever since the day before, when Mike from two doors down broke up with her, Tasha had been stuck to Mom’s side. The cameras were rolling and the director had already said we should just do the scene and he’d take care of it in the editing room.

  “Let’s stah-t with Gerald this time,” Nanny said. “I think Gerald’s come a long way, don’t you?”

  No one said anything.

  “Well, come on, Faust family. Speak up!” Nanny said. “Gerald hasn’t punched a wall in what? More than a year?”

  “True,” Dad said. “And he makes his bed every day and gets ready for school and does a lot around the house to clean up. That’s true.”

  “That’s right, Doug. He’s come a long way if you think about where we were last year, am I right?”

  The director nodded so they all nodded—except Tasha, who just looked like she was going to cry again.

  I’d forgotten about punching walls. It was so episode one. I’d become the Crapper since then. Punching walls was for pussies.

  “I think Gerald is awesome,” Lisi said. “But I always thought Gerald was awesome.”

  Tasha said, “Well, he never crapped on your stuff, so you would.”

  We all looked at Tasha and at Mom, who was still stroking Tasha’s hair like she was a prized dog or something. She didn’t seem at all fazed, but then again, I’d crapped on her stuff, too.

  The director walked over to us and said, “Look. We have to have this shot by four. It’s three now. You had plenty of time to get all this family stuff out last night. You’ll have forever to continue figuring it out. Can we just concentrate on the positive things that the show did for your family while we were here?”

  He wasn’t asking. He didn’t wait for an answer. He just turned around and went back to his chair.

  But the mere mention of last night made Tasha’s lower lip curl out and quiver again. I don’t know what they said or did to her, but Mom and Dad had her in Dad’s man cave for over two hours, and then Mom and Dad fought all night long—or at least until I fell asleep.

  It was about Mike from two doors down. I know that. I know it because Dad asked me and Lisi some questions before the meeting. Did Tasha invite him in? Did he ever touch either of you? Are you sure he didn’t have pants on? How long would they be in her room? Please describe the noises you heard, Gerald. Did Tasha have any clothes on? Describe those noises again?

  Nanny moved the scene forward. “You two did a wondah-ful job of keeping those house rules from my first visit in order. These kids know their chores and their responsibilities,” Nanny said, looking at Lisi. “Which reminds me. I think
I might have a late birthday gift in he-ah for you, Lisi,” she said, reaching into a bag behind her and pulling out a wrapped gift.

  Lisi sat forward. “Is it okay to open it now?”

  “Of course,” Nanny said.

  When she opened it and found a set of walkie-talkies, Lisi screamed. We’d wanted them for years and Santa Claus had never brought them for us. She asked Dad to help her get the packaging open and put in the batteries, and then she handed one to me.

  “Lisi to Gerald, can you hear me?” she said from the hall.

  “I can’t tell. You’re too close,” I said. “Go farther away so I can’t hear you talking.”

  A few seconds later, she came through the walkie-talkie’s speaker. “Lisi to Gerald. Come in, Gerald.”

  Nanny was smiling. Dad was smiling. I was smiling. I pressed the yellow button on the side of the walkie-talkie. “This is so awesome!”

  “Now,” Nanny said. “Gerald, you go off and play with Lisi. I want some time with the rest of the family.”

  I nodded and took off full speed toward the basement door, but then I stopped. I stood quietly where I could still hear the conversation and pressed the button on the walkie-talkie so Lisi would be able to hear, too.

  “Tasha, I think we’ve talked enough about what happened here with the boy you invited over to the house,” Nanny started. “But what we haven’t talked about is your behay-vyah toward your sis-tah and broth-ah. I’d like to know what you think you can do to improve it.”

  I heard Dad sigh.

  Tasha said, “I can’t relate to them.”

  Mom said, “Lisi and Gerald are just so young compared to Tasha.”

  “I’ve met plenty of families who have far larger age gaps and the kids don’t have as much trouble relating to their siblings,” Nanny said. “At least they’re not rude to one another. Tasha, you’re quite rude to your sis-tah and broth-ah. I’d like to know why.”

  I could hear Lisi sniggering upstairs. If she didn’t shut up, we’d be in big trouble.

  “They don’t love me,” Tasha said. “Nobody loves me!” She started to sob again.

  “That’s silly talk,” Nanny said. “We all love you. And I know being twelve isn’t much fun, but it would be a lot bett-ah if you treated people more nicely and thought about them a bit. It’s not that hard, is it?”

  I didn’t hear anything for a minute, and then Tasha said, “How can I relate to a retarded kid and a girl who doesn’t do anything but read books? Seriously! I’m a woman now, you know? I have other stuff to think about.”

  “Like that—” Dad said. But then he stopped. But I think everyone knew he meant Mike.

  “There are no learning-disabled children in this house,” Nanny said. “Everyone here is fine! I could take you into some really difficult homes and then you’d realize how lucky you are. I get so cross when you say these things!”

  “She’s right,” Dad said. “Every doctor we’ve taken him to says he’s fine.”

  “And another thing,” Nanny said. “You are not a woman, Tasha. Not for a while yet. You shouldn’t be thinking you’re a woman.”

  Tasha started to cry then. Mom said, “Stop making her feel bad! None of this is Tasha’s fault. She didn’t do anything wrong!”

  “Yes, she did,” Dad said. “She brought a boy into this house and—and—you know!”

  Mom said, “Nothing bad came from it, Doug.”

  “He could have robbed us. Could have hurt Lisi. Could have done worse things than what he did,” Dad said. “And what he did was bad enough. For Christ’s sake, she’s twelve!”

  There was twenty seconds of silence. Tasha let out a few more sobs and Nanny told her to go to her room, so she did.

  “Jill,” said Nanny. “Look at me. You have to do something about your own behay-vyah. Everyone else here has changed, but you haven’t changed. Gerald makes his bed every single morning. Lisi isn’t any trouble. Even Doug does more around the house and has tried to help you through this. But it’s really up to you now.”

  There was silence. Then Mom spoke. I think she was crying.

  “When I was pregnant with Lisi—she was—you know. A surprise,” she said. “I didn’t think I could love another child as much as I loved Tasha. Tasha has her problems, I know, but I’m her mother. But—I mean, how can you have that much love for two of them? I just didn’t think I had it. A lot of women feel this way. I’ve read articles about it,” she said. “And Doug was working all the time, so it was just the two of us. But then Lisi was born and I didn’t feel anything for her at all.”

  This is when I switched the red button on the side of the walkie-talkie to OFF. If Lisi was still listening, then I didn’t want her to hear that.

  “I tried,” Mom said. “I mean, I really tried. But I didn’t have the patience for all that baby stuff anymore. The diapers. The spitting up. The night feeding. Doug? Do you remember? She never stopped crying.”

  He said, “Jill had a little breakdown. Or two.” He sighed. “And Tasha didn’t like being left out, either.”

  “And then, just as I’d potty trained Lisi, there was Gerald. God,” Mom said. Then she started really crying. “It’s normal for families to try again for a boy. Everyone said things to Doug about it. Like we had to keep going for our boy! And look at what we got. Look at that boy.”

  I didn’t need to hear any more. The way she talked about Lisi and me… was like we were pets, but without the whole reason you get pets.

  I was stuck in the kitchen. If I made a move, they’d know I was there. So I stood still and tried not to listen as Dad explained Mom’s trips to the shrink and how their marriage suffered.

  I could hear Bony Nanny give Mom a hug. It was like a skeleton wind chime. “There’s still time,” Nanny said. “Just because they’re six and eight doesn’t mean it’s too late. Tasha needs more discipline and those two just need love.”

  “They’ll never love me,” Mom said. “And I don’t blame them.”

  When I heard this, I realized something. I was six, but I realized it and I shoved that realization deep down until I was old enough to handle it.

  That realization: Her love was a lie, just like everything else.

  The day I’d be old enough to handle it: my seventeenth birthday.

  PART

  THREE

  44

  ON MY SEVENTEENTH birthday, I wake up thinking of Hannah. Not in that way. Okay, yeah, in that way, too. I almost told her I loved her last night on our way home from work. Our drives from the PEC Center the last few nights have been fun. We play loud music and Hannah sings. Over the weekend, we stopped at the baseball lot again and we lay on the field and looked at the stars. On Monday we stopped at the McDonald’s and ate hot caramel sundaes. Last night, she was eating a long string of black licorice and she smiled at me in this way I can’t explain. I had to remind myself not to go too fast. It’s only been, like, two weeks. She’s not gonna love you back, Crapper. No one has yet.

  When I get downstairs, there’s a card on the kitchen table for me in a blue envelope and it says Gerald on the front of it. Next to that is my lunch. Mom isn’t around and I can’t hear any rodent-reproduction noise from the basement, and I know Dad left at six today, because I heard him leave as I was getting up. So I grab my lunch and the card and stuff both into my backpack.

  Happy birthday, Gerald.

  Picking Hannah up for school this week has made my mornings earlier and berry-scented. We have to be in school by eight, but I pick her up at 7:15 so we have time together. She meets me at the end of her long driveway and we take off toward the back roads.

  “Happy birthday!” she says.

  “Thanks,” I say. “What’d you get me?”

  “I like that shirt,” she says.

  “Thanks. I got it at the mall this weekend.”

  “It’s sexy.”

  “Don’t start,” I say.

  “Right. Rule number five. I remember now.” As she says this, she puts her hand on
my leg. Near the knee. But still, it stirs me. She started doing this two nights after she cleaned the ASSHOLE off my dashboard.

  “You know what I like about you?” she asks.

  I don’t say anything.

  “You’re a mystery, Gerald. I have no idea what you’re thinking most of the time and I can’t tell when you’re here and when you’re not here.”

  “I’m here,” I say. “I’m driving the car.”

  “But the mystery part of it. I like that,” she says. “Like—I’m the junkman’s daughter and everybody knows that and it makes me easily recognizable. People see me and they think junk. They don’t have to talk to me unless they crashed their car and they need a passenger’s-side door for a 2001 Honda or something, you know?”

  I laugh through my nose a little, because she’s overlooking that I’m Gerald the Crapper. People see me and they think crap.

  “See? Like just then. You thought something but you didn’t say it. Mysterious.”

  “Just driving. To school, remember?”

  “Let’s skip!”

  “School?”

  “School and work. Why the hell not? Let’s get out of here for the day and go somewhere exciting.”

  “Which would be?”

  “I don’t know. How about Philly? It’s only two hours. We could walk arm in arm and catch an arty movie or something. Eat street-vendor hot dogs.”

  “That sounds nice,” I say. I think of my Gersday Snow White guidance counselor. “But I should really go to school.”

  “Not so mysterious now.”

  “School’s important at the moment.”

  “Unsexiest statement ever.”

  I sigh. “Can I ask you something?”

  “Duh.”

  “Why do you want to run away so bad? I understand the junkman’s daughter problem and all that, but is that it?”

  “Is that it?” she says. “Dude. I am the original Cinderella. I cook. I clean. I wash. I scrub the fuckin’ mildew out of the tiles in the shower. All the time, I’m cleaning shit. Their shit. I literally have cleaned up their shit. It’s disgusting.” She gestures wildly. “On top of that, I work and have to deal with all those hockey creeps at the PEC Center and go to school with a bunch of wankers. Seriously. Why would anyone want to stay?”

 
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