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Ask the passengers, p.18
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       Ask the Passengers, p.18

           A. S. King
 
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  One is Ross Bentley, our resident Holocaust denier. The other is some kid who I’ve seen around, but I don’t know. He seems to know Ross, anyway. They’re wearing similar T-shirts, but I can’t make out what they say in the semidarkness.

  Eventually, the lights go on. There is relative calm in the audience, and people start to talk to each other as we are escorted, row by row, toward the gym. Because the lights are on, I can read what Ross Bentley’s shirt says. It says DON’T BE GAY, and it’s got one of those red circles with the diagonal line through the word gay. The kid standing next to him is wearing this one: BE HAPPY, NOT GAY.

  Everyone ignores them, and Mr. Thomson and some teachers talk onstage with the presenter, and they smile at the baby, and they’re all cooing at it and being normal as if the Day of Tolerance assembly wasn’t just infiltrated by negative creeps.

  We have no chance of slipping out of our organized lines and skipping the pep rally in the gym. Kristina sits four people away from me, and we get seats as near to the doors as we can, but there are teachers everywhere, so we sit and watch.

  Turns out the Unity Valley cheerleaders can spell out the word TOLERANCE with their skinny bronze bodies. Who knew?

  Ross Bentley and his friend refused to sit, and now they stand to the right of Mr. Thomson at center court because “they have rights, too.” That’s a direct quote from Ross’s dad, who has come to stand next to them. His shirt says STRAIGHT PRIDE. He says, “The First Amendment protects our right to free speech as much as it protects yours.”

  I’m incensed. I never really felt like this before. Maybe because I haven’t told anyone yet, and I know that means I can’t complain yet, either. I don’t know. I just want to freak out on these hater people and tell them that they’re bigoted assholes. And then I remember that Ross and his dad don’t even believe in the Holocaust. I don’t care how many babies we could put on a stage—there is nothing that will change people like this. I’m still incensed, though. Because five hundred people here want to have a tolerance rally. And three people don’t.

  The cheerleaders do another hate-free cheer while Mr. Thomson asks Mr. Bentley to go to the office and sign in as required by the school rules. We hear this conversation because Mr. Thomson doesn’t turn off the mic and because Mr. Bentley is particularly loud. Mr. Bentley doesn’t move.

  Kristina looks to me, and there’s just enough chaos for us to make our way out the side gym door, and we start heading that direction when Mr. Trig, who’s standing by the gym doors, says, “Ladies! Where do you think you’re going? We’re not done yet!”

  We don’t stop.

  I hear one of the teachers say, as we walk out into the hallway, “Some thanks we get for throwing them a pep rally.”

  That line just eats at me. It makes me sick. I am sick of living around people who want to put me in a box. I am sick of people poking their noses in my business. I am so sick of everything to do with Unity Valley that when we get into the main hallway and Kristina turns around and says, “So, did you tell Claire and Gerry last night?” I just explode.

  The explosion is internal at first. And then it forms this sentence, which blurts out of my mouth about three times too loudly and right into Kristina’s face.

  “Will you PLEASE just let me do this my own way?”

  “Dude,” she says. “I was just asking. I thought we were cool.”

  “Nothing is cool! Everything is fucked now! EVERYTHING!” I say.

  “Uh, wow.”

  “I don’t give a FUCK about anything anyone in this town thinks anymore! I’m fucking so sick of the gossip and the bullshit and the stupid secret code of Unity Valley, where no one ever wins unless they’re the same five people who always win because they lie to the most people! I’m done! Okay? I don’t care who knows I’m gay!” I say. “I’M GAY! Okay? I’m fucking GAY!”

  I stand there in the long hall and hear it echo back at me. She’s fucking gay. Okay?

  Frank Socrates, who is stationed at the water fountain, echoes, too. “She’s fucking gay, okay?”

  I smile at him. He smiles at me.

  “Miss Jones, would you like to take a walk with me?” The voice comes at the same time the vice principal grabs my elbow. I walk with him and leave Kristina standing there looking angry and completely confused. Frank S. takes a drink from the water fountain, readjusts his toga, and walks out the front doors.

  I’m suspended. Just the rest of today and then all of tomorrow. Unity Valley High School doesn’t tolerate lesbian freak-outs that include the F-word.

  Oops.

  I guess when I finally lose it, I lose it.

  Dad has to pick me up.

  It’s like a tradition.

  40

  I CAN’T DECIDE IF I WANT HIM TO DRIVE SLOWER OR FASTER.

  I SIT IN THE FRONT SEAT.

  He says, “I have to go across town for something Mom needs.”

  “Okay.”

  For the first ten minutes of the drive, I take to ripping my suspension notice into pieces. When I get each tidbit so small I can’t rip it in half again, I add it to the pile in my lap. My goal: confetti. Celebration. A bon voyage.

  He doesn’t say anything until we get on the big road. Then he does an awkward half cough to clear his pot-smoky throat and says, “I assume that sucked?”

  “It sucked the suck off of suck.”

  I look at him as he drives on the big highway, keeping his half-cocked eyes on the road. He glances over at me and smiles a little.

  I am not in the mood to smile. “Does Mom know you’re stoned all the time? Because it’s really obvious. I think if you’re going to do it, you should be more discreet,” I say. “You need to either stop smoking pot or buy some cologne or something. And breath mints. The fact that Claire doesn’t know yet is insane. She must be in some sort of denial.”

  He makes a face like he never thought of this before. Make no mistake—weed kills vital brain cells, dulls critical-thinking skills and reaction time. “Wow. What brought this on?”

  “You asked me to stop lying, so I’ve stopped lying. Watch and be amazed,” I say.

  He glances at me again, no smile this time. He almost looks scared, except he’s too stoned to be scared.

  “Furthermore, Mom dislikes me. Don’t argue or talk me out of it. And don’t make excuses for her. She’s never liked me, and that’s her problem. Eventually, she’ll be sorry she was such a bitch.”

  He doesn’t answer for a minute, then says, “So far, I get that you think I smoke too much weed and that Mom is a bitch who doesn’t love you. Is that right?”

  “I don’t think you smoke too much weed and Mom doesn’t love me. I know it,” I correct. “If you guys are so cool about diversity, then why don’t you act it?”

  He nods and says, “I know it’s hard to believe, but your mother is a really hip lady. Or—she was. Once.”

  I go back to ripping the suspension notice into tinier and tinier pieces. “I remember when she was still nice to me, you know. I remember those walks we used to take around the block when I was little.”

  “I bet you do.”

  “I never understood why we moved here. I mean, I understood you guys wanted us to have a different childhood, and she wanted to buy her grandmother’s house, but I don’t get it. You said fresh air and grass and space and country fairs and stuff, but I guess I could never figure out why you thought that was better. Different, yeah. But better? I don’t know.”

  He nods.

  “It wasn’t any better for you guys, was it?” I ask.

  “Definitely not for me.”

  I stare out my window again for a minute. I remember the move. I remember Ellis and me crying in the backseat of the car. We held hands the whole drive to Pennsylvania. We were so close. When we got to the house, which we’d already seen a few times, we sat on the love seat in the quiet room because it was closest to the door.

  “We really thought you’d move us back,” I say.

  “Yeah.”
/>
  “Like if we’d have stayed on that green love seat for long enough, you guys would just change your minds.”

  “Ellis took it hard,” he says.

  “We all took it hard.”

  “Not like she did, though. You don’t remember the whole doctor thing?” he asks.

  “No,” I say.

  He sighs. “You don’t remember the problems she had in school and how we had to send her to the psychologist?”

  “I don’t remember any of that,” I say. Why don’t I remember any of that?

  We park outside an office store. “You coming in with me?” he asks.

  I go with him. We buy an extra-long USB cable and something that has to do with the word Ethernet. I make him go to the car first, and then I buy him an ergonomic stapler because I think he should have one.

  When we start driving toward home, I take a deep breath and say it.

  “So I’ve had a girlfriend since July, and I love her.”

  “Okay,” he says.

  “I don’t know why this is so important for me to tell you, but I’m a virgin. Seriously weird for me to be telling you that, I know, but this whole thing, it’s not about sex. I just fell in love, and it happened to be with a girl.”

  “O-kay,” he says.

  “When I told you I didn’t know if I was gay, I was telling you the truth. I just know I’m in love—with a girl. I had no idea of anything past that. It’s very Socrates, you know? I’m not questioning my sexuality as much as I’m questioning the strict definitions and boxes of all sexualities and why we care so much about other people’s intimate business.”

  He nods.

  “But there’s a problem with that.”

  He nods again.

  “If I do all this Socratic shit the way I’ve been doing, I end up living in this weird limbo that’s no good for anyone. The world is made up of clear definitions, which is exactly why Socrates was put to death. People didn’t like him messing with their clear definitions, you know?”

  “Okay,” he says. I’m so glad he’s stoned right now.

  “So, I’m gay. Until further notice. That way, I don’t have to think about it, my girlfriend doesn’t have to wonder about it and I can actually enjoy being in love with her because she’s awesome.” I have just ripped the last of the suspension notice into its tiniest parts, and I stuff the confetti into my sweatshirt pockets. “You and Mom don’t have to think about it, either. You can just be the couple in town who has a gay kid right alongside Kristina’s parents and whoever else. And Ellis can just figure out a way to grow up and be my sister again.

  “And if any of you has a problem with any of it, then it’s your problem. Being gay is hard enough without having to worry about your family being weird about it.”

  “Gotcha.”

  We look out the windows for a while.

  “For what it’s worth, we’re not like that. We have gay friends, and we’re fine with it.”

  “Yeah, but gay friends isn’t the same as a gay daughter,” I say. “Plus, you haven’t been fine with it, really, have you?”

  “That’s different. You got busted for underage drinking.”

  “At a gay bar,” I add. “And you told me I was ruining Ellis’s reputation.”

  “We worry about her. Because of—you know—the whole doctor thing when we moved, I guess.”

  “Did you stop to think about what school was like for me last week?”

  “We worried about you. But we knew you’d get through it, too. You kinda had to, right?”

  I shrug.

  He says, “Either way, you have to tell Mom now. I’ll help you, but you have to give her a little time to catch up. She’s not like me, you know?”

  “By like you, do you mean stoned all the time?”

  He opens the glove compartment and pulls out a pack of peppermint Life Savers and pops one. “See? I’m not completely stupid.”

  We pull up to the curb. I give him the stapler. “Thank you for being so cool about this,” I say.

  He’s too stoned to know what to say, so he just looks at the stapler and then back at me, then at the stapler again.

  “What the hell happened to us, Dad? One minute we were hammering shit together in the garage, and then we just stopped.”

  He lets a minute pass. “I dunno. I guess stuff happened,” he says.

  “I miss making birdhouses. How are we going to keep our freak reputation if we don’t make them anymore?”

  He takes his hand off the wheel and raises it in an oath. “I promise we will make more birdhouses.”

  “Good.”

  “Maybe this weekend?” I ask.

  “You bet.”

  As I walk onto the porch, where Mom is standing with her arms and lips folded, I say, “Yay! Astrid is home!” and toss my suspension-notice confetti as high as it will go, and because I ripped it up so small, it seems to stay in the air forever, like light snowflakes.

  41

  CAN YOU SAY AWKWARD?

  “YOU’RE GAY NOW?” she says. Dad and I recoil a little. “You’re sure? You’re gay?” Her frown wrinkles two deep vertical lines between her eyebrows. “Because last time we talked you weren’t gay, remember? And you didn’t know if you were gay. Remember that?”

  I nod. “Yeah. I remember that.”

  “So couldn’t we get here without all the lies?”

  “They weren’t lies.”

  She gives me a judgmental look. “Astrid, I know what a lie is. I’ve been around for forty-seven years.”

  “You don’t understand.”

  She sighs as if I am the biggest pain in her ass ever and then says, “Exactly how don’t I understand?”

  “I needed time to figure it out. It takes a while, you know? You don’t just wake up one day and know,” I say. “Or at least I didn’t. I wasn’t lying. I was just figuring it out.”

  “And I’m guessing we’re the last to know?” she says.

  “Depends on who you include.” I so want to tell her that no one in Russia knows, but her sense of humor hasn’t shown up for this conversation (or any conversation in the last decade), so I keep it to myself. Also, probably no one in Africa knows, and that’s a lot of people.

  “We shouldn’t be the last to know,” she says. “It makes us look like we don’t know our own children.”

  And there it is. The Claire moment. I cock my head. “So you’re angry because this makes you look bad? Because I didn’t tell you first? Am I getting this right?”

  “No. I’m not angry at all. I’m just—uh—dis—”

  “Disappointed?” I say. “Not the best word choice.”

  She looks genuinely frazzled. “I didn’t mean it that way. I mean that I just wish I knew before now.”

  “Well, you know now. Believe me. I told you as soon as I could.” I lean into the table toward her. “It’s just not easy to tell you stuff.”

  She waits a second, and I think she’s going to be totally cool, and then she says, “How is this my fault?”

  “Who said this had anything to do with fault?”

  “You just did.”

  Dad puts his hands up. “Astrid was saying that it’s hard to talk to you. That’s why she found it hard to tell us the truth.”

  “Hard to talk to me? Are you saying that, too, Gerry?”

  “Mom, you’re doing it now,” I say. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I just told you.”

  “Yes. You did.”

  Silence.

  Awkward.

  “Well, I guess that’s that, then,” she says.

  “Yep.”

  Dad says, “Thanks for telling us, Astrid.” He walks over and squeezes my shoulders from behind and gives me a hug from back there while I’m still sitting down. “Doesn’t change a thing about how we feel about you.”

  “That’s right.” Mom leans over and holds my hand. “You’re our daughter no matter what.”

  Not we love you no matter what but you’re our daughter no matter what. Not a
ll that warm, but it’ll do.

  At least it’s over.

  Things do not miraculously become normal, either.

  First, we go out for lunch to the Legion Diner. I order a grease-dipped grilled cheese sandwich. Mom orders a waffle and link sausage, and Dad orders the breakfast-all-day special.

  While we wait for the food, Mom says, “I talked to Kristina this morning.”

  I raise my eyebrows.

  “She told me that she lied,” she says.

  “And?”

  She seems stuck. “And that’s it. Thought you’d want to know.”

  “Well, yeah,” I say. “Thanks for letting me know.” I look at her and wait for the apology, but it doesn’t come. This time, though, instead of flaming up inside, I send love to her. Mom, I love you even though you can’t say you’re sorry or admit you were wrong. If only you’d stop thinking there’s such a thing as perfect, then you’d feel a lot better about yourself. And me.

  While I eat my sandwich, I tell them that I’m not going to hide who I am in school. “I mean, I pretty much came out already. With F-words, apparently.” I laugh. “I hope that’s okay. It’s easier to just be real at this point.”

  “But it’s still going to be hard, you know?” Mom says.

  “Yeah,” I say.

  “For all of us,” she adds.

  We eat in relative silence until I say, “Do you think Ellis will ever stop being so freaked out about it?”

  “Well, I certainly didn’t raise her that way,” Mom says.

  Dad chews.

  Mom chews.

  I chew.

  “I think you’re the only one who can help her with this, Claire,” Dad says. “She only listens to you.”

  Mom chews.

  I chew.

  Dad chews.

  “What do you mean, she only listens to me?”

  No one answers her question.

  “You did it?” Dee yells into the phone.

  “I didn’t just do it,” I say. “I did it and got suspended for doing it so loudly.”

 
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