Places no one knows, p.15
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       Places No One Knows, p.15

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  For a second, I’m sure he will. He’ll fall toward me like gravity, press his mouth to mine, and I’ll finally stop feeling like I’m waiting for disaster.

  Then he shuts his eyes and turns away “Waverly,” he says, and his voice is strange. Thick and unwieldy, like it’s taking up physical space. “I like you.”

  I don’t know what to say. He doesn’t sound like he’s lying, but the admission is too impossible to actually be true.

  “Because of the other night?”

  “No,” he says, still not looking at me. “No. For a long time.”

  I stare at the ceiling, trying to see through the plank and plaster to the night sky above. “How long is long?”

  “Remember last year?” He says it like the question conveys some highly specific meaning.

  I remember many aspects of last year. It spanned, after all, an entire year.

  Marshall is undaunted by things like complex chronology. He soldiers on, watching the carpet. “In history, Mosley—he was telling us all that slang from the 1920s and he talked about carrying a torch for someone. And I looked at you. Remember?”

  The thing is, I do.

  It wasn’t real, college-track history, just a general requirements class I had to take before I could have the good one. Marshall sat at one of the group tables across from mine. Every time I glanced up from my notes, he’d be there, but not in a way that registered.

  The memory is vague, casting him as some part of the background, not a real person. He was more like areas of texture and color, something you walk right by in a museum. Next to the Warhol and Pollock, so you’re not taking away from the real art. He was the lesser-known contemporary.

  But on the day of the Roaring Twenties slang expo, Mosley had given us the definitions, writing them out as he went—a disordered list rolling down the whiteboard, all wet, the bee’s knees, on the lam, dolled up, the cat’s pajamas. And there at the bottom, carrying a torch.

  I’d looked up, and for a second, Marshall’s eyes met mine and all the texture and the flat, neutral fuzziness were gone. All I could think was how incredibly dark his eyes were. Then he rested his chin on his hand and his gaze slid past me. He wasn’t looking away out of self-consciousness or embarrassment, but simply moving on—bored and slow, like I had stopped holding his interest.

  “How long?” I say again. “How long have you liked me?”

  That day, he was unsettlingly direct, but now he’s looking at the floor. “I don’t know. A really long time.”

  And whatever else he might be saying, by whatever scale he’s measuring, I know that it’s true. The sophomore history class was almost a year ago.

  “Why?” It comes out sounding confrontational, when really I just want to understand.

  I wasn’t charming or interesting or exciting. I wasn’t nice. Not the prettiest of the pretty girls or the perkiest of the pert. I was just…there, the same way he was.

  Marshall does the strangest thing with his mouth, like he’s trying not to wince. It’s not the face you expect someone to make when they explain infatuation.

  “I saw you in the hall one time,” he mutters. “Messing with your sock. You had all these blisters, and your sock was, like, stuck. You were trying to peel it off. Your heel was a mess and I thought how I couldn’t do that.”

  “Do what?”

  “Keep going after the blisters pop.”

  I close my eyes, imagining—the bite of it, the metallic, satisfying sting. “It’s not that hard. You just have to stop caring that it hurts.”

  “I can’t,” he says. He says it plainly, simply, as though it’s something self-evident. As though it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

  “Maybe you’re not trying hard enough.”

  “It was this other part of you,” he whispers. “Not how you are in class. I knew I was the only one who saw, and saw that you were bleeding. I was just kind of in love with it.”

  “You can’t be in love with someone you don’t know.”

  “Not you,” he says, and his whole face is red. “The moment. I was in love with that moment. How you peeled your sock off. It was just—it was like this private thing.”

  “So you had a crush on me because my foot was bleeding.”

  “It’s not like that.”

  “Then what? Did you think it meant I needed help? Or that you knew me?”

  “No.” He laughs, a hoarse, humorless sound. “I mean, I’m not fucking stupid. I knew you were never going to be anything except a hangover girl.”

  I try several times to parse the phrase, but it stays very bizarre. “A what?”

  He’s still smiling, but in a bitter, painful way. Not looking at me. “Nothing. It’s this thing Ollie made up. Just a girl you dedicate your hangover to. It’s stupid.”

  I sit staring at him. I can’t even figure out how to dedicate a conversation to someone who’s in the same room. “You’re telling me that I am the imaginary epicenter of your binge-drinking.”

  “It isn’t like that,” he says again. “It’s just hard to explain.”

  I tilt my head, eyebrows raised. “Yeah? Well, I’ve got all night.”

  Marshall shifts uncomfortably, fidgeting with the blanket. “You get torn up about something, okay? And it doesn’t really matter if it’s a person, or something that happened, or just that no matter what, you’re stuck with yourself. Sometimes, you need to get the fuck out of your head.”

  I sit against the wall with my knees pulled up. I want to reach for him and tell him he’s a moron. There are so many ways to get free that don’t involve substance abuse.

  I am an expert at going farther longer.

  He presses his hands against his face. “All I’m saying is, sometimes I’d use you as a reason. When you have a reason, getting wrecked is really easy. It feels good. You forget a lot of stuff. Then maybe you get sick, and that’s okay too, because for a little, there’s just that—that sick feeling. But when it’s over, you’re right back where you started, except you feel like shit everywhere instead of just your brain. Then you crawl in bed and curl up and wish things were different.”

  I’m suddenly convinced that he says you because it’s easier than saying I. “So you associate me with feeling terrible.”

  “No.” He’s clenching and unclenching his jaw, chewing his bottom lip. “I associate you with wanting to feel better.”

  I’m inches away from him, and five or six thousand miles. We are side by side, and it’s the little things that make me hungry. All the minor, stupid things I’d never admit to, like how seeing the pattern of his sleeve reproduced on his cheek once after history class last year made me want to kiss him.

  The way he watches me is physical—a pressure on my skin. He is so tender, so immediate, and I am only good at wanting things from a safe distance.

  I stand up and start to pace, because it feels like I will tear my way out of my own body if I don’t start moving. Even the ratty texture of the carpet makes my feet sing out in pain, but I breathe deep and keep going.

  Marshall scoots back against the wall. “Waverly,” he says. “It’s okay. Settle down.”

  Out in the living room, the voices have dropped to a confused mutter and then they spike again. Nothing is okay.

  For a second, we freeze exactly where we are, listening to the shouting and pretending not to.

  Then Marshall winces and starts picking at the bedspread. “Well, that’s awkward.” He shivers, like he’s trying to shrug off the whole thing. “Sorry. I don’t know if you noticed yet, but it’s pretty much shit here.”

  I pace back to the bed. Out in the hall, the melody changes keys. Marshall’s father has been replaced by a girl’s voice like a soprano flute or an angry clarinet. The pitch of her outrage cuts through the wall, perfectly audible.

  I reach for Marshall’s hand. When I lace my fingers with his, he flinches. “Is that your sister?”

  He nods, pulling away, scrubbing his hand against the bed like he wants to wipe off my
concern. “Annie. She’s good at being mad.”

  “And you’re not?”

  He shakes his head. “I’m better at being sorry.”

  It seems impossible that anyone’s reaction to chronic conflict would be sympathy, but I don’t say so. His expression is deeply, inexplicably sincere. He just looks really sorry.

  When he shrugs, it’s apologetic. Defeated. “It’s like, my mom can’t let him just be a dick and be done with it. She can’t let him go.”

  I scoot closer because I don’t know what to say, and being close can sometimes feel the same as knowing the right words.

  “It’s scary,” he says, glancing over with a tight, painful expression. “How much she loves him. How much she loves everyone. And I think I could be like that, if I wanted something bad enough. It’s scary, knowing I’m just like her.”

  “What’s she like?” But what I really mean is What does that make you?

  He stares at the ceiling. His whole body is rigid, like he’s waiting for someone to hit him.

  “Okay, here,” he says finally. “She’s scared of spiders. I mean, crying-screaming terrified. But whenever she finds one in the house, she catches it in a water glass and takes it outside, because she can’t stand to kill them.”

  I lean into him, shoulder to shoulder, when what I really want is to mash myself against him and grab whatever I can reach. He is so totally transparent, and I think maybe he’s right. I can’t picture him killing spiders.

  For a second, he does nothing. Then he swallows hard and reaches for me, gentle when he puts his arms around me. It’s not the kiss I asked for. It’s not what I expected. I breathe out and let him pull me down onto the bed.

  Marshall tucks his chin so he’s talking into my hair. “Please, just tell me why—why me?”

  It feels strange to lie so close to someone, to be so utterly aware of his heartbeat. I put my hand on his chest and close my eyes. Everything seems dense and perplexing, impossible to convey in words. I make a fist, winding my hand in his T-shirt, trying not to cling so hard it seems desperate.

  The answer he’s looking for doesn’t exist. Not in a way that will satisfy. I am insubstantial. A tangled, vaporous creature that lives in my brain, almost wholly imaginary. I can be here with him as easily as I can inhabit a sonnet or an organic molecule, or crawl inside a math problem.

  The way he’s holding on to me is so tender it’s appalling. I let myself sink farther into the softness and the stillness, whispering against his shirt, “Why did my blisters make you like me?”

  He presses his mouth to my hair and it’s the warmest thing I’ve ever felt. “I don’t know. Because it was like a window to you, maybe. A way to see what was underneath.”

  His heart is thudding against my cheek. The rhythm of his pulse makes it hard to keep my eyes open.

  “Maybe that’s why,” I say, finally. “Why I’m here and not in CJ Borsen’s bedroom, or Maribeth’s, or in Tunisia.”

  When what I really mean is that of all the sunny, well-meaning people who praise and reward my deceitfulness every single day—my talent for disguise, my carefully constructed face—he was the one who saw something true.

  .

  I wake to the shriek of my alarm and an ache that starts in my feet and pounds all the way up my legs. That can’t be good.

  On my bedside table, the candle still smells like smoke and spices, but sometime in the night, it’s burned low enough to drown itself. The wick is sunk a millimeter deep, and I have to dig it out of the wax with a paper clip.

  I ignore the pain. After all, that’s what I’m good at. Everything is fine—totally doable, totally normal.

  By third period, my feet hurt so much I can barely stand to put weight on them. My calves are starting to go numb. I skip trig to go see Molly Bruin in the training room.

  “Do you have a minute?” I say, hovering in the doorway, trying to sound casual.

  She adjusts her glasses and considers me, leaning back in her chair. “Sure, what’s up? We don’t see you in here much.”

  I try to find a way to phrase the magnitude of the situation. My tongue feels useless.

  If I were talking to Marshall, it would be different. I’d still be clenching my hands to keep them still. I’d want to look away, but at least I’d know the words. When I open my mouth, nothing comes out.

  I stand in front of Molly’s desk, gaping like a fish. Last night I said the easy part was not caring that it hurt, but there’s nothing easy about this. If I were with Marshall right now, in the privacy of his room, maybe I could even tell him that. I shut my eyes and remember how it felt to be honest with someone.

  “It’s my feet,” I mumble, as though Molly will be able to magically divine all meaning from one awkward sentence.

  The look she gives me is appraising, like she’s waiting for me to finish, but all she says is, “Okay, get your shoes off and hop up.”

  When I clamber onto the training table and offer her my foot, she probes the sole with her fingers, examining my heel and my arch. “You’ve definitely got swelling. Does this hurt?”

  I nod as a familiar pain shoots up my calf. When she digs into my heel, I have to squeeze the edge of the table to keep from jerking away.

  “How much have you been running?”

  “A lot.”

  “More than Jamie works you guys for practice?”

  “Yeah.”

  Molly takes a deep breath, like she’s formulating her conclusion. Her diagnosis. “You’re not going to like this, but you’re going to have to take a break.”

  I shake my head. “We’re in the middle of regionals.” I can hear desperation in my voice, and I hate it. I hate the rising pitch. I hate that it makes me feel brittle like an egg. Crushable, smashable.

  Molly sighs, leaning on the table and making a steeple with her fingers. “I need you to listen to me. Your feet are a tore-up mess.”

  I keep my palms flat on the vinyl. One breath, then another. I raise my head and smile my best student-council smile. “I can run through it, though. I mean, I know I can still hit my times.”

  “Waverly, you’re not listening to me. If you keep running, it’s going to get worse.”

  “And if I take a break, then what?”

  “You rest, you ice. If everything looks good in two months, maybe I start thinking about okaying you for track in the spring.”

  The room is warm. The heat must be all the way up. I sit staring at a crumpled ball of athletic tape over by the trash cans.

  “I’m sorry,” Molly says. She sounds like she means it. “I know this is important to you.”

  I nod, just barely. I can’t talk around the knot in my throat.

  She reaches out and pats my arm, and then I understand. She thinks I’m looking shattered because I won’t be able to compete, like I could actually give a shit.

  The only thing that matters is the running. Without it, I have no place to put all my noise, no way to shut off my brain.

  Without it, there’s only the candle, and the candle just keeps getting smaller.

  .

  I can’t run. This is the situation. I can’t run and I can’t concentrate, and I can’t sleep.

  Everything seems wildly unmanageable.

  Crouched in the middle of my bed, nestled in a fortress of homework, I don’t pull back the covers. I don’t light the candle.

  I want to see Marshall so badly I can taste it like metal. Unacceptable. Better to wait, let the thundering die down in my chest. Let the ache in my throat work itself out.

  I sit with my chin tucked and my knees up, rereading all my notes on Poe, reminding myself that my single greatest asset is the ability to endure. And maybe every cell in my body feels like it’s disintegrating? But it’s not. Being forbidden from running does not make my heart stop or interfere with breathing. It’s painful, but like most other painful things, it’s survivable.

  By morning, I’m seamless again. This is my life now.

  I’ve been radi
cally ahead in every class for weeks. Sometimes, though—just lately—my thesis statements don’t make that much sense. It doesn’t matter. If you establish a certain standard of work at the beginning of the year, you’re golden. Teachers will grade on their first impressions for the rest of the semester.

  Spanish II is quickly becoming the asymmetric center of my day, the enlarged hour that all other hours rotate around. It’s nice just knowing that Marshall will be there. Comforting, like a smooth little rock you hold in your pocket so you have something to do with your hands.

  All period, I frown studiously at my notebook, trying not to make it obvious that I’m acutely aware of him, and he sits impassively at the back of the room, trying not to make it obvious that he’s looking at me.

  Even the simple act of being near him is doing something to me. The person I was a week ago would never have gone to see Molly, no matter how bad the pain was. Under any other circumstance, I’d be gutting it out, trying not to limp through every practice, but my name would still be there at the top of the active roster.

  Now, the damage is done, and here we sit in our respective seats, dutifully ignoring each other. Him, bored and sullen. Me, with my clean, helpful expression and my good posture and all my pens out. This is us in the daylight. And in the daylight, we are entirely different people.

  In honor of Friday, or because we’ve run out of conversational exercises for the chapter, or possibly to celebrate the impending dance, Mrs. Denning has resorted to that bane of education: busywork. We are to practice our interpersonal skills, under the pretext of scholarship. We will perfect the delicate art of paying compliments in a language in which most of us do not demonstrate even the mildest level of proficiency.

  She hands out numbered half sheets and we pass them down the rows.

  The name I draw belongs to Laurel Bacard, and I try to think of things I could say that would be construed as both complimentary and accurate, using the unit vocabulary. I want to remark on the staggering intricacy of her highlights, but I have no idea how to say it in Spanish.

  At the back of the room, Marshall is leaning into the aisle. He’s turned away, whispering. It looks like he might be trading papers with Ollie Poe.

 
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