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Ask the passengers, p.17
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       Ask the Passengers, p.17

           A. S. King
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  FLIGHT #4430


  What people don’t tell you about this part of breaking up is the embarrassment. I’m Mikey Jo Martinez, man. Always a happy guy. A good father. A good husband. I go to church, and I volunteer at the soup kitchen twice a month, you know? And all I feel is embarrassed right now. I almost didn’t make it onto this plane because I thought about taking a bunch of pills last night. That’s a first. Mikey Jo Martinez doesn’t think about shit like that. Ever.

  Donald and Glen told me that divorce was freedom. They said that they have more time and less worries, and no one bitches at them anymore. But they didn’t love their wives, either. I do.

  More than I ever did before.

  You know that saying about how you don’t know what you have until it’s gone? I already did know what I had, and now that she’s gone, I know even more.

  Donald and Glen said something about dating honeys. How they go clubbing. Shit, man, I’m thirty-five years old. I don’t want to go to a club. I don’t want honeys. I want Noelle back. I want my kids back. I want to hit Rewind. So I’m going back to Jersey to see if she’ll try one more time.

  And I’m landing in an hour, and I don’t know what to say. All I know is that nothing I ever said before worked.

  She said she loves me. She said she doesn’t want to do this to the kids. She said that she really wants it to work out. But she said it’s up to me… and I don’t know what that means.

  I can admit that at first I was a jerk. She gave me some self-help book, and I threw it on the ground, but I was mad. Really mad. And I’m still mad and embarrassed.

  What’s scary is that I still feel that way on some days. Like I have anger issues. Like I’m some animal. When, really, I know I’m a good guy. I mean, most of the time, you know?

  My favorite part of flying is when we break through the clouds. Seeing them from above is magical, but flying through them to see the landscape below is beautiful. As we do it this time, we hit some turbulence, and I focus on some tree-covered mountains in the distance and the dark yellow of the setting sun hitting the edges of the scattered small clouds between me and the mountains. While I do this, I hear Noelle’s voice in my head—the last thing she said to me on the phone. She said, “If you’re coming back here, then you’d better have something new to say, because I’m not going to sit and listen to the same old excuses, Mikey. You either need to own up to your shit or just stay in Dallas with your mother, because this is your last chance.”

  She means it, too. Noelle Martinez doesn’t say anything she doesn’t mean, which is why I love her as much as I do. You can count on people like that.

  I look out the window and see the sun getting lower and the mountains in the distance getting yellower, and I feel this sharp pain in my chest like someone just shot me. It hurts, but it’s good, too. Like it’s letting the pressure out of my chest. It’s a relief. Like someone somewhere is releasing the embarrassment and letting me think straight.

  Suddenly, I know what I’m going to say.

  I’m going to say: This was all my fault. I’m so sorry. I didn’t appreciate you, and I didn’t help you. She will look frightened because Mikey Jo Martinez has never admitted stuff like this before. I will ask her to hug me. When she does, I will ask: Will you let me love you again?



  “HEY,” KRISTINA SAYS. It startles me out of my love-sending, and I sit up.

  “Ninja,” I say. “Didn’t even hear you come out the door.”

  “I snuck around the side,” she says. “I don’t feel like seeing Claire right now. Or your sister.”

  “I don’t see why not. They still probably like you more than they like me.”

  “Look,” Kristina says. She sits down on the table next to me, our feet on the bench part, and I share my blanket with her. “You have to understand some stuff.”

  “I understand enough,” I say. “You lied about me. I’m not your best friend anymore.”

  “Please! Just stop!” she says, and she starts crying a little, and I feel like shit—a little like my mother. Twisting the knife once it’s in and all that.

  She reaches into her coat pocket and gets a tissue, and she blows her nose a few times. Finally she says, “I did make it up. But I had to.”

  “You had to? That’s even lamer than denying it.”

  “Let me finish,” she says. “You don’t understand what it’s like to be from here. You don’t understand what it’s like to have a family who’s always been from here.”

  “And this makes it okay to tell lies about your best friend how?”

  “God, you can really be like Claire, you know that?”


  She looks at me and starts to cry again. “I’ve lost everything! Can’t you see that? Everything!”

  “No. I can’t see that,” I say.

  “I was Kristina Houck—”

  “You’re still Kristina Houck!”

  “I was Kristina Houck: Homecoming Court, Unity Valley girl. I had a reputation. I had status. I had a future. Recommendations to the best colleges. Connections. People,” she says.

  I interrupt her. “You still have all that stuff. Doesn’t explain why you lied about me. Which, if you look at it from my point of view, looks like this: Townie girl with status and connections makes up lie about her pseudo–best friend who moved here and was never accepted by the townie people, and then denies it and makes a shitload of excuses, as if it’s okay for good Unity Valley girls to lie about big nothings from out of state.”

  She sobs into her hands. I say, “I asked you a while ago to stop being so bossy. It was uncomfortable, but I could kinda take it, because it was the side effect of being friends with Kristina Houck, popular townie girl. I took it with a grain of salt every time you put me down and made me do shit I didn’t want to do. And then this week I kinda missed you while all the rumors started and the shit went down with Ellis and everything. I really needed you around, you know?”

  “That’s kinda sweet,” she says. “Thanks.”

  “But then I heard the stupid lie you told, and I was crushed. Completely crushed. Do you know that my own mom won’t believe me unless you tell her yourself that you lied?”

  She cries a little more and says, “I should go.” And then she gets up and walks around the side of my house toward her house. I watch her walk all slumped over and sad, and I guess she is genuinely sad. Maybe she did have more to lose than I did. I don’t know what it’s like to be half of the loved Homecoming couple. I don’t know what it’s like being Kristina Houck, but from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t look very easy. So I jog after her and say, “Wait up.”

  She stops on the sidewalk and takes a deep breath.

  I say, “Come back to the table. Before the whole town sees us and says we’re breaking up for a second time.” I laugh, and it makes her smile. We walk to the side of my house again and around to the table.

  “I’m really sorry,” she says. “I’ll tell Claire I lied. I know that won’t stop the bullshit. But at least she’ll know I lied.”

  “That’d be cool, thanks,” I say.

  “It’s fucked up that she doesn’t believe you.”

  I sigh. “You know, she’d take you over me any day.”


  “Yuh-huh. I bet you my whole bank account,” I say.

  “Will you promise you won’t get mad if I say something?”

  “I can’t promise, but I can try.”

  She lets out a deep breath. “Well, I’m kinda pissed off with you for lying, too.”

  I wait for her to explain, but she seems to think I know what she’s talking about. “I don’t follow you,” I say. “What did I lie about?”

  “Everything. You know. Your big secret.”

  I look around for Frank S. I sit him on his favorite bench, and he shrugs at me.

/>   “It wasn’t a lie,” I say. “I just wasn’t sure.”

  “But I was your best friend, Astrid. You should have told me.”

  I feel myself getting pissed off, so I take a minute to try to figure out how to say what I want to say. Frank S. lights Dad’s pipe. I have no idea how he knew where to find it, but I guess if I made him up in my head, he must know everything I know. I feel relaxed by association.

  “I see what you’re trying to say. But you’re wrong. I mean, when did you first know you were gay? And did you tell anyone on that first day? Who is anyone to tell me when to talk about something so personal?”

  “But look at me. I’m gay, dude. And your best friend. Right?”

  “Still, it’s none of your business until I’m ready to tell you. Calling it a lie is wrong. And kinda hurtful. I really know what you’re trying to say, but try to think about it from my side. It just sucks that you’d hold my own confusion—which tortured me for months—against me. Seriously.”

  “Huh,” she says. “I never thought of it that way.”

  “I guess I’m just not as confident or sure as a lot of other people. I wasn’t really sure about any of it until the night we got busted, actually.”


  “Yeah. And then all this other shit happened.”

  She points to the house. “And you still haven’t told them?”

  I shake my head.

  “But you and Dee are okay?”

  I shake my head again.

  “Shit,” she says.


  She says, “Can I be honest?” Like I could stop her from being honest. She smiles uncomfortably. “I don’t want to go back to school, and I don’t want to live here anymore. I swear to God I’m not trying to be dramatic, but I’d jump off the nearest cliff to save myself from the next seven months of my life.”

  “I hear you,” I say.

  “I’m thinking about cyberschooling or something.”


  “Yeah. Seriously,” she says.

  “Dude, you’re not looking at this right at all,” I say. “Try to think about it like an ancient philosopher. WWSD, you know?”

  “WWSD?” she says. It takes her a few seconds. “What Would Socrates Do?”

  Frank S., puffy-eyed and slouching on the bench, gives me two thumbs up.

  “Yeah. Seriously. Think about this town. It’s a cave where people are chained, right?”

  “You need to stop.”

  “Why? I’m right! All those people who are chained here thinking that their reputations matter and that this little shit matters are so freaking shortsighted. Dude, what matters is if you’re happy. What matters is your future. What matters is that we get out of here in one piece. What matters is finding the truth of our own lives, not caring about what other people think is the truth of us!”

  “That’s refreshing, Asteroid. Really. Thanks.”

  “Stop being sarcastic. Motion is possible. You don’t have to be a douche from Unity Valley for all your life. You can stop whenever you want. Up to you.”

  “I knew there was a reason I should have taken humanities,” she says.

  “I learned most of this stuff from watching Claire. Look at her. Miserable. So concerned with these people. Your people. You, even. So concerned about having Unity Valley friends that she befriends you. My best friend. Seriously. If you don’t step out of the cave now, that’s you in twenty-five years.”

  She chuckles through her nose.

  “You know I’m right.”

  “Let me go inside and tell her I’m a douche, okay?” she says.

  “No freaking way. If you go now, she’ll think I bribed you or something.”

  We walk to the curb.

  “I want to fast-forward to next September,” she says.

  “Or we could just try to have fun while we’re here,” I answer.

  “Ready for the big Day of Tolerance?” she asks.

  “Are you kidding?” I ask. “I’d rather poke my eyes out with dull forks. But we have to do what we have to do, right?”

  Kristina nods. “I say we tolerate the shit out of it.”



  ELLIS STAYS IN BED. This was the plan, and I don’t care.

  If the situation were reversed, however, I’d like to state for the record that I’d go to school and support my assumed-gay sister during the lame-o tolerance rally because sisters do shit like that for each other. Then again, I haven’t really told her yet, so I’m pretty much to blame for my own lack of familial support.

  The first noticeable sign of Tolerance Day: They moved the NO PLACE FOR HATE sign from in front of the guidance office fourteen feet to a spot in front of the main office. Very exciting stuff.

  Study hall is out of control. There’s a sub, and someone has convinced him that this study hall isn’t one of those real study halls where people study. I sit by myself until Clay stops by and saves me.

  “How you doing?” he asks.


  “You ready for Wednesday?”

  “Yeah. I’m stoked.”

  “I’m going to kick its ass,” he says.

  “I have no doubt.”

  “Have you seen Justin at all?” he asks. “I’m kinda worried about him. And we need him back at the paper soon, you know?”

  “I think he’ll be back this week. Ask Kristina. He’s okay, though. Nothing to be worried about.”

  He lowers to a whisper. “I heard he went to jail.”

  I shake my head. “Totally untrue.”

  He sighs. “Oh, good. So what do you think this whole Tolerance Day will be like? My money is on it yielding a whole bag of nothing.”

  “Yeah. I’ve been trying not to think about it, really.”

  “For what it’s worth, I’ve got your back,” he says.


  I spend the rest of the period reading the Socrates Project sheet we were all given at the beginning of the class, which instructs us on the schedule, the requirements and the actual day of debate.

  I take a second to think about him—Frank Socrates—and I decide he’s my new hero. Not because he shows up in my life and talks to me when I want him to, but because of who he was and what he stood for.

  I just love how he rejected all the boxes.

  Then the bell rings, and the tolerance portion of our day begins.

  First, to the assembly. I blend into the student body and don’t feel the spotlight on me so much as the lights dim and the guy talks. And talks. And talks.

  “The world is made of so many types of different people, and we have to learn that though they might be scary at first, they are not inherently bad because they are different.” He starts this way and goes on to talk about his days in school as a mixed-race Latino and how hard it was for him growing up. He got beat up a lot. Teased every day.

  I start to feel resentful. You mean to tell me that it’s 2011 and this guy gets paid to have remedial talks with high school students about how they shouldn’t hate other people? Isn’t this elementary? Shouldn’t it be automatic? What kind of species are we if we have to have people come talk to us about this crap? And how, if we’re that stupid, did we get to the moon and help build a space station?

  He tells a story about how his mother was from Cuba and how she hated Puerto Ricans. He says, “No matter how many times I tried to explain to her how stupid this was, she never changed. It was just ingrained in her.

  “Some of you have it ingrained in you. You weren’t born with it. You were taught. No baby has hate for anything.” He produces a baby (a real baby) and bounces the kid on his hip. “We were all babies once, right? This little guy doesn’t care what country you were born in or what religion you might practice or how much you weigh or who you might love.”

  At that, I feel the spotlight again. He talks a bit about high school being a time of feeling things out, and after that I kinda block him
out for a while because the spotlight is just so hot. And I’m angry. I say to Frank, who is sitting up on the catwalk operating the spotlight, “Frank, that baby is smarter than half of my humanities class. Is this how things have always been?”

  Frank nods.

  ME: I need to get out of here.

  FRANK: Too bad you didn’t sit in an aisle seat. You’re not going anywhere.

  ME: I can pretend I’m going to puke.

  FRANK: Do you really think that would be wise?

  ME: I just can’t believe he gets paid to talk about this stuff.

  FRANK: I bet he can’t believe it, either.

  Then I hear, “I just went to my twenty-fifth class reunion, guys. Let me tell you—people change. The girls who passed around rumors about all the weird kids? Are nice and have their own weird kids. The so-called losers who graduated at the bottom of the class? Are driving luxury cars and running big businesses. The kid who made fun of all the gay kids? Is gay. I’m not saying this will happen to all of you, but what I’m trying to tell you is that high school doesn’t end here. You guys will know each other for a long time, and you will get to see how life changes people. I only hope that for right now, you remember that there is no place for hate in a happy life. I don’t care who you are, where you come from or what God you believe in. I can guarantee you that if you hate, you will never achieve true happiness.”

  Someone taps me on the shoulder and a note drops into my lap. It’s from Kristina.

  Let’s skip the 6th-period pep rally thing.

  I look around and find her and nod.

  After the guy finishes his assembly program, Principal Thomson gets up and talks a bit about why it’s important to study diversity in high school, and then two boys walk down the aisles and meet in front of the stage, and they stand there with their arms crossed as if they’re bouncers. I think Mr. Thomson mentions something about signs in the hallways and how anyone caught making or hanging hateful signs will be suspended, but I can’t be sure. I’m too busy trying to figure out what these two kids are about to do.

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