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Ask the passengers, p.19
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       Ask the Passengers, p.19

           A. S. King
 
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  “Holy shit, Jones.”

  “And you’re right. It does feel better. So far, anyway,” I say. “Meet me at the lake?”

  It’s warmer today, and I’m too hot in my scarf and gloves, so I leave them in the car before we climb up the hill.

  The ground is wet, so we lie on a picnic table.

  “They took it pretty well,” I say when she asks me how it went. “My dad was stoned, so he didn’t care. Mom was… Mom.”

  “Your dad was stoned?”

  “Yeah. You’re in the inner circle now. I can tell you shit like that, right?”

  “Inner circle, huh? How’d I get there?”

  “You wanted me to come out. I came out. Now we’re bound for life or something. Isn’t that how it goes?”

  “I didn’t want to force you out. I just thought—it’s just easier,” she says.

  I point to the sky. “Look at that. Three in a row—all 747s, I bet.”

  “You can tell that from here?”

  “Sometimes. Those are pretty high up,” I say.

  “Sweet.” She points. “What’s that one? It seems smaller.”

  “It’s a little jet. Probably an ER4.”

  We watch it zoom across the sky. “I like this,” she says. “I’d have never known that you knew anything about airplanes if we didn’t just hang out sometimes.”

  “And I wouldn’t know that your favorite food is roast beef.”

  She laughs and turns toward me and looks at me with that smile. The smile that brought me here—to this. To her. To the truth about why I didn’t really want to kiss Tim Huber while we were dating last year. To the truth about why I buried my head in all those books for my whole life.

  When I kiss her, I place us in the future, where we are just like Mom and Dad. No. Scratch that. I place us where we are a happy couple who are madly in love, and we are kissing the way people kiss on their wedding day. With joy and relief and love. Without guilt. Without shame.

  I say, “Abracadabra.”

  Dee kisses me and then says, “You know what? I don’t want to rush. I want to have fun and fall in love and actually—I don’t know,” she says. “It’s like you’re teaching me to slow down or something.”

  I don’t say anything, but I’m somehow not embarrassed that I just finally said abracadabra and she’s all no, thank you.

  She continues. “Must be all that Socrates shit rubbing off on me, but I got to thinking about how since I came out, all I’ve done is work on being sexual, and while that’s fun and all, I never took a minute to really just relax and feel loved, and I like it.”

  “It’s nice,” I say. “No doubt.”

  “My first few times were kinda awkward and fast.”

  “Oh,” I say.

  “Actually, that thing you said a few weeks ago? About how I was a fiend and all that? Reminded me of my first girlfriend and how—uh—I guess—pushy—she was. It was fun, and I liked her a lot, but she didn’t love me,” she says. “I think she just wanted to pop my cherry, you know?”

  “Yuck. I hate that expression.”

  “Me too.”

  I think about all those guys in school.

  They say: I popped her cherry last night!

  They say: She bled all over my varsity jacket!

  “So okay,” I say. “Abracadabra whenever it comes naturally. How’s that?”

  She nods and kisses me again. “I never asked you what your favorite food is,” she says. “And I really want to know.”

  I turn to look at the sky and rest my head on her shoulder. “Well, I know it’s sure as hell not shrimp.”

  We laugh, and then she gets serious. “You sure everything’s going to be okay? At home? School? Do you feel like you did the right thing?”

  “I have no idea. I’m sure people will still be weird about it. Ellis will probably come around. My mom might manage to say she loves me before I graduate college. My dad probably forgot it already.”

  She laughs. “Some people will always be a pain, but all in all, it’s easier to be yourself, I think. I mean, now that the pressure’s off to be perfect.”

  I stay quiet for a minute and let that go through my head a few times. The pressure’s off to be perfect.

  “Jones?”

  “Yeah. Sorry. I think I just got a message from Socrates. I have to go.”

  She laughs. We get up and walk down the hill to our cars, and when she takes off, I open a notebook and grab a pen from my glove compartment.

  My paradox is all wrong. I write out a whole list of other paradoxes until I come to the one I most want to argue. I want to argue it with everyone in this town. Everyone on TV. I want to argue it with Claire and Kristina and even with Dee, who puts too much pressure on herself to play well and run enough. Or Juan, who swears at himself every time he makes a tiny mistake in the kitchen. Or Ellis, who is still a scared little girl trying to fit in.

  I want to tell them: Nobody’s perfect.

  42

  THE SOCRATES PROJECT.

  LET’S START HERE: Wearing a toga to school is totally boss. Given free roam of the school in order to pick fights with anyone who looks willing is also totally boss. I mean, I’m usually Astrid Jones, pacifist poet type who doesn’t usually pick fights outside of correcting your grammar. But now I’m Astrid Jones, recently out lesbian who just got back from being suspended for saying the F-word several times right in front of the vice principal. This is a little different than I’d imagined it all quarter.

  I have a small sign with my paradox on it. Nobody’s perfect. I find most people won’t argue with this, so I have to ask them related questions. I start with teachers. Mr. Trig walks by me after first period. “What is perfect, Mr. Trig?” I ask. “And can you say that anyone’s achieved it?”

  “We’re all born perfect,” he says.

  Good answer.

  “My right foot is a half size smaller than my left foot,” I say. “Is that perfect?”

  He waves me off and winks because he has to get back to class.

  Mr. Williams walks by me, and I ask him, “Is perfection possible?”

  “No.”

  “How are you so sure?”

  He says, “Everything is a matter of perception.”

  “So does that mean nobody is perfect or everybody is?” I ask. “Because if it’s a matter of perception, then either could be true.”

  “Up to you,” he says as he walks away toward his room. I could have kept that going for a while, though. This whole notion of perfection intrigues me. How can we say nobody’s perfect if there is no perfect to compare to? Perfection implies that there really is a right and wrong way to be. And what type of perfection is the best type? Moral perfection? Aesthetic? Physiological? Mental? I write this down in my project journal.

  During the five minutes between second and third periods, I start to rant on my crowded pseudo–street corner (which is the hallway next to the gym).

  “If perfection were possible, which type would reign? Moral perfection? Mental perfection? Would the smarter man win, or the stronger? The dark-skinned or light-skinned? Would the winner be the most beautiful?”

  “Perfection is equal,” someone says. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

  This draws a laugh from someone in the crowd.

  “There is such a thing as a perfect race,” he says.

  “A whole race of perfect people?” I say. “Really? How do you know this?”

  “God said so. It’s in the Bible,” he says.

  “The Bible?” I ask. “What’s that? And which god are you talking about? Zeus? Hermes? Poseidon?”

  He flips me the bird while he’s walking to the library wing steps.

  Someone yells, “Perfection is stupid!”

  “I like that!” I say. She can’t hear me, but I riff on it. “Perfection is stupid! So, what is stupid, then?”

  “That toga,” Kristina answers as she slips by me and into the classroom to my right.

  “I believe
that’s a matter of perception, Ms. Houck. My toga is not stupid. If the rest of Unity Valley wore togas, then I would be at the height of fashion.”

  During third and fourth periods, we have the group debate in the gym, and Ms. Steck invites some of the school administrators to watch and argue with us. We each sit with our signs pointing out, waiting to be picked on by audience members. Camus-loving Clay gets the superintendent all wound up about the true meaning of education by saying that in recent years, our highly paid administrators are simply puppets for yahoo school boards who don’t know anything about the tenets of a good education.

  “That’s ridiculous!” the superintendent says.

  “What’s ridiculous is the cutting of the art program in the elementary schools this year, sir. And the simultaneous building of a soccer field when we already have one soccer field.” Score for Clay.

  An African-American board member—Jimmy Kyle’s mom—asks me why I chose nobody’s perfect. “Isn’t this whole town built on the idea of perfection and standing in the community? I’ve never lived here, but I hear things. And I mean no offense by this,” she adds, nodding to the other administrators in the room.

  “I’ve heard it said, too,” another person says.

  “I don’t think it’s Unity Valley. I don’t think it ever ends—this feeling of having to be perfect. Look at our culture. Look at the computer-enhanced people we compare ourselves to. Look at the expensive cars and trinkets we’re all supposed to have. Look at how many people are wrapped up in that! Imagine how much money and worry we’d save ourselves if we stopped caring what kind of car we drove! And why do we care? Perfection. But there is no such thing, is there? And if there is, then everyone is perfect in their own way, right?”

  “I agree,” she says. “Not a popular view, but logical.”

  “My toga is also not a popular garment,” I say, “but it’s very comfortable.”

  I consider this statement a big score for my humanities grade. I see Ms. Steck scribble something in her notes.

  We eat lunch at a special table in the cafeteria, and when we’re done eating, we are allowed to roam the caf and talk about our paradoxes.

  I go straight to Ellis’s table and say, “Hello, fine people of Unity Valley. I’m taking the day to talk about perfection. Do you have an opinion one way or another?”

  Aimee Hall says, “Some people are better than others.” She looks at Ellis and then at me. Something isn’t right here. Ellis looks more than her usual color of emo blue. It’s like she swallowed a wheelbarrow of drowned adorable kittens.

  “Is there a way you can tell who those better people are?” I ask.

  “Yeah,” Aimee says. “First place you look is their wallet.”

  This makes a few others at the table laugh.

  “You know I’m Socrates, and I’m a poor man, yes? So by your definition, I am less perfect than you because of how much our wallets hold?”

  “And other things. And news flash, you’re not Socrates.”

  “How interesting. So would all of you be willing to show me your wallets?”

  They stare at me. Aimee Hall digs into her purse and then realizes she’s the only one doing it once she opens it and dumps a bunch of cash onto the table.

  “How much is that?” I ask.

  “I don’t know. Probably about eighty bucks,” Aimee says. “And don’t forget these.” She tosses out two credit cards.

  “So this eighty dollars makes you more perfect than everyone else at the table, then?”

  “Yeah. In some ways,” she says. “Can you just go away now?”

  Her friends look at her like they feel sorry for her. Ellis gets up to put her trash in the trash can.

  “Hold on,” one of the other girls says. I stop walking away as she pulls her own wallet from her purse. She pulls out two hundred-dollar bills. “I think this makes me more perfect. Right?”

  As I walk away, I hear Aimee Hall ask the other girl how much her credit limit is, and I look around for Frank so he can see how proud I am that I may have just poked a hole in Unity Valley’s perfection myth, but he’s nowhere.

  By the end of the day, I’m exhausted. Frank S. must have been one hearty guy to argue on the streets of Athens all day the way he did. Our humanities class enjoys a bunch of snacks and a Socrates Project party in the humanities room, where we all debate one another’s paradoxes and are reminded by Ms. Steck to question everything and continue to challenge others with our open minds long after we remove our togas.

  The stack of lit mag submissions is huge since the first-quarter poetry and short-story classes have finished. Ms. Steck is still cleaning up from the Socrates Project party, and I refuse to take off my toga.

  “It makes me feel smart,” I say.

  Justin laughs. “It makes you look dumb, though.” He snaps a few pictures, and for fun I pose for him in the hall with my sign, pretending to argue with invisible passersby.

  “Also, it doesn’t flatter your ass. Just sayin’,” Kristina adds.

  “Don’t care. I like it,” I say.

  I pick up the stack of submissions and put it into my bag, and I say good-bye to Ms. Steck.

  “Good job today, Astrid. Socrates would have been proud.”

  I nod. It’s true. I think Frank would have loved to see that he is legend and that he didn’t drink hemlock for nothing. I try to make him show up again, but he won’t. So I’m guessing he thinks I don’t need him anymore. He’s probably right.

  Before we leave, Justin’s phone buzzes, and he gets that look again—that Chad look—and he shoves his reading pile into his bag and moves to the hall. Kristina and I walk home with him and make sure he doesn’t trip over stuff while he texts without looking up once.

  Three people beep because of my toga. I show them my sign, which I still have tucked under my arm. NOBODY’S PERFECT.

  43

  THANKSGIVING IS NOT A DIRTY WORD.

  THE TURKEY GOES IN at ten thirty—covered in butter and salt and pepper and celery and carrots and onions. Mom is in penny loafers, not high heels. They’re new.

  We have omelets for brunch and a bowl of fresh fruit. Ellis doesn’t say much except, “Skip the cheese for me, please,” and “Orange juice, thanks.” Still no eye contact. I guess that’s her problem for now. I can’t try with her until she’s ready to try.

  Mom insists that we all have a piece of her freshly baked courgette bread, which makes me want to scream, They’re called zucchinis, okay? Zucchinis! I don’t scream anything, though. If she wants to use obscure European words for everything to feel better about living here, then she can. We all have our own ways of coping.

  I go out the back door toward my table, and then I walk around the side of the house and stand on the sidewalk. I put my hands in my pockets and look down Main Street. I see a few people out walking their dogs or talking to neighbors, and even one guy starting to put up his Christmas decorations. I listen to the air. I don’t hear a thing. Not one thing.

  They say:

  They say:

  Ellis still won’t talk to me, and I’m really not sure why.

  She walks past the living room while I sit here writing in my Socrates Project journal. She doesn’t stop and say hi, even though she slowed a bit as if she was going to come in and watch TV. Makes me feel like I should go to the quiet room instead because this is the only TV room we have, but then I figure if she wants to watch TV, she can come in and watch it. I forget about it and go back to writing.

  “Where’s you father?” Mom asks.

  She starts to move toward the back door, and I say, “I think he’s clearing off the bench so we can make a new birdhouse.”

  “That one in the maple is about to turn to dust. It could use a replacement.” She stands and drums her fingers on her thigh and then walks away.

  I watch her walk away, and I realize that maybe I have more in common with Claire than I think. Maybe deep down, she doesn’t want to be here, either. Deep down, I do think I’m
smarter than those twelve NO votes in humanities class last week. I did use Jeff Garnet as a disposable person—and while it was Kristina’s idea, I still went along with it, using his annoying leg-jiggling as an excuse. And really, who cares if the kid jiggles his leg?

  Dinner is at three, and as tradition dictates, we all go upstairs and dress up a little. Dad puts on his cubicle blazer and a dress shirt with his jeans. Very Dude. I’m pretty sure he’s not stoned, too, which is great.

  Mom puts on a work suit. With heels. Of course.

  I wear a cool miniskirt I got last Christmas and my favorite turtleneck and a pair of black dress boots I never wear because they’re a little too small for me and they hurt my feet if I have to walk in them. I’m pretty sure the last time I wore them was last Thanksgiving.

  While Mom carves the turkey, Dad dishes the carrots and corn and mashed potatoes and gravy into their respective bowls, and I fill the water glasses with ice cubes and water.

  Then Ellis arrives at the table in sweats. I’m pretty sure they’re dirty sweats. She smells a bit like a hamper. She doesn’t offer to help, and just sits in her seat while the rest of us do stuff.

  When the turkey is on the hot plate and covered in sufficient gravy, we sit in our chairs, and Mom starts the toast with her wineglass raised.

  “To family,” she says. She tears up on the second syllable of family. Sniff. “To all the things we have to be thankful for.”

  Dad clears his throat and raises his glass. “To a new start.” He nods to me.

  I raise my water glass. “To love,” I say.

  We all look to Ellis. Her hand isn’t anywhere near her glass. She’s just staring into space until it’s time to eat.

  Mom says, “Ellis.”

  She acts deaf.

  Dad says, “Ellis.”

  She sighs and raises her glass. “Here’s to bullshit,” she says.

  And I can’t help it—I laugh so hard that I make her laugh, too. And that makes Dad and Mom laugh, too—in that order.

  “To bullshit!” I repeat, and take a gulp of water.

  “To bullshit!”

 
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