Places no one knows, p.18
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       Places No One Knows, p.18

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  I clasp my hands, remembering that night in his room, how plainly he talked to me, even when it was painful or embarrassing. And then, in class today. I try to be honest with her. I try to be real. Indisputable proof that on some level, he wants to tell someone all the things he carries around with him.

  Autumn’s using her comb to frame my face, holding my chin in her hand. “And completely not my business, I know, but he’s been hanging around Heather McIntire again, which—gross. She always wants to discuss his finer qualities when we’re supposed to be doing worksheets in English, when I can’t even believe they’re still persisting with that whole thing.”

  “What whole thing?”

  Autumn shrugs, but there’s something working around the corners of her mouth. Annoyance, maybe? Distaste? “Oh, just that whole doing-it-on-her-parents’-bed thing.”

  And if I’d ever thought I was so clinical or untouchable, I was wrong. I can actually feel the moment when comprehension reaches my heart. My mouth snaps shut.

  I expect Autumn to correct my expression again, but she only laughs and shakes her head, like the way my eyes go horrified means something else.

  “Yes, Virginia, he stuck his Rhode Island in her Delaware.”

  And I know I’m supposed to laugh—I know. I try. But all I can manage is a cough. I reach up, combing my fingers through my hair even though it sends loose clippings everywhere and she isn’t done shaping the back.

  “How do you know?” I say, after I’ve been quiet so long it’s awkward.

  “Um, because high school? I mean, it’s not like it was a secret. Anyway, everybody’s always doing it with somebody, right?”

  Which is a pronouncement that makes very little sense. A state of sexual rampageousness is not inherent. I am never doing it with anybody.

  “Anyway, he’s just window-shopping in the masochism store again. That boy needs to be saved from himself.”

  She says it as though she has already done the due diligence and is now announcing her findings. I wonder if she’s really that naive. No one can be saved from their own dysfunction by anybody else.

  “Maybe he just likes her.”

  “Are you kidding? His shitty dating history is like the basis for every thirty-minute instructional video on how to be a sad, tragic figure. He doesn’t like-like her, he just likes that she likes him. See? Shitty.”

  Her tone sends cold fingers creeping between my organs. Maybe he’s the kind of person who just needs that much approval. Who would feel the same way about anyone, as long as they liked him.

  Autumn stands over me with one foot in the tub and one foot out. “And God, we had this entire conversation about homecoming, like that’s even his natural habitat. He said he was maybe going to ask her, which is the worst idea in the name of tiny baby herpes that I have ever, ever heard.”

  “She’s pretty, though.”

  It’s weird to hear the words coming out of my mouth with no forethought, no hesitation. Like I’ve ever considered Heather’s aesthetic appeal in my life before this moment.

  Autumn shrugs, making a neat side part with the comb. “Maybe if you’re into that whole yes, clearly look. Anyway, sad but true, et cetera, blah blah blah. Not our problem. Here, check it out.”

  She guides me to the sink and presents me with my reflection, my new, pristine haircut. My face is so guileless. So innocent.

  “If you want, I can teach you how to do your makeup. That cut would look good with a cat’s-eye liner, and your dress needs something flashy to wake it up a little. How do you feel about false eyelashes?”

  The question is immaterial. I am already grappling with one fully manifested feeling. I don’t have room for another one.

  I glance back at her, trying to look polite and curious without seeming too invested in the answer. “So, do you think he did it?”

  “Did what?”

  I rub the side of my neck. The mark is already fading. “Did he ask Heather?”

  The look Autumn gives me is distracted, like my side part is so much more crucial to this moment than the pain in my throat. “Oh—shit, probably. I saw him talking to her after bio. She looked really happy.”

  WAVERLY

  8.

  When the house is dark and the whole neighborhood feels asleep, I light the candle. It’s more than half gone, but I can’t think about that now.

  I swallow my restlessness, my prickly, twitchy impatience, and all my feelings.

  Pull the covers over my head. Relax. Breathe. Count. Repeat.

  The thing that Autumn told me doesn’t matter. The thing that Autumn told me is not my business, not even a little.

  Relax. Breathe. Count. Repeat.

  When I open my eyes, Marshall is sitting on the floor of his room. He’s got his back against the footboard of his bed and a textbook open in front of him. It’s strange, seeing him so studious. So responsible, and on a Friday night. His desk lamp throws a warm glow over everything, but when he glances up, his eyes are guarded and he looks away.

  Before Autumn’s house, I was ready to fling myself at him and thank him for his compliments. Now the image of Heather McIntire keeps intruding, reminding me that once, or twice, or more times than I want to think about, he was naked with her. Please don’t be true, a part of me whispers, the prayer of a raw, thumping heart. Please don’t be real. But I know it is.

  I pick my way over a mess of stray pens, open books, and loose, crumpled handouts, and sink down on the carpet. There’s nothing but the narrow gap between us, half an inch of space. We sit side by side, looking straight ahead.

  Finally, I lean sideways and rest my shoulder against his. “Are we not speaking, or are you just that into mitochondria?”

  He shrugs, focusing intently on a diagram of cellular respiration.

  I keep my gaze trained on the side of his face. “Quit being passive-aggressive and tell me what’s wrong.”

  He’s quiet a long time and even though it looks like he’s ignoring me, I know him well enough by now to know that he’s just trying to formulate what he wants to say. Finally, he takes a deep breath and clears his throat, still staring straight ahead. “Why’d you make up that bullshit list in Spanish?”

  The question is ludicrous. Why did I avoid shaming him in public? Why did I go out of my way to protect his confessions, rather than rip the defensive coating off his heart and wave it around for everyone to enjoy?

  “Did you really want me to say those things out loud?”

  He shakes his head, looking down. “No. I don’t know. I guess not.” Then he closes his eyes. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, I wanted you to say it out loud.”

  His tone is obstinate. It tells me, as if any further proof were necessary, that he doesn’t worry about his heart. His heart is there for public display and being ignored hurts worse than the chance that someone might get a good look at him.

  I know I should explain—apologize, even—but I don’t know the right way to say it. All my explanations sound like arguments. “You really think some busywork assignment matters? I mean, how can I say those things in class?”

  He looks up, and suddenly it’s like he’s seeing inside me, seeing down to the bottom, how maybe I didn’t keep quiet to protect him, but because the things he wrote showed too much of me. I didn’t want to rip off my defensive coating. “Because they’re true. I just want to know that you’re there, and you see me, and it’s true.”

  I kiss him, because it’s the truest thing I can think of—a way to say everything without knowing how to say it. When he kisses back, the flavor of his mouth is unfamiliar, sweet and wistful.

  “You don’t taste like you’ve been smoking,” I whisper against his chin.

  He shakes his head. “I’ve kind of been quitting.”

  “How is it?”

  “Hard.”

  I kiss him again, cradling the back of his neck, holding him against me. His breath feels good on my skin and our faces are impossibly close together. Better than anything I can conce
ive of having in the daytime. I touch his chest and pray that he doesn’t take it as some kind of consolation prize.

  He must not mind, because he hauls me onto the bed and then we’re rolling over and over in his sheets, and my God, all I want is to breathe his deodorant and his messy, shaggy hair and forget my life in huge, ravenous gasps.

  He stops, trapping me between his elbows. Suddenly, I’m painfully aware of his body against mine. Painfully aware that he is close to undressed.

  “That’s a good haircut,” he whispers, like he means it in some profound way I don’t understand.

  “Thanks,” I whisper back, just as stupidly profound.

  He’s looking at me like this is a moment. Like I’m something special or perfect. I think Autumn might be an expert in everything.

  Then he ducks his head, examining the trail of black marker snaking down my wrist. “What happened on your arm? What is that?”

  “Autumn did it.”

  He looks down at me, not quite frowning. “You really are friends with her,” he says finally. There’s something strange in his voice. Curiosity? Wonder, maybe?

  “I told you that already. I needed graffiti to prove it?”

  “No, I mean…friends. She only draws on people she likes.” He keeps touching the flowers. “How did you meet her, again?”

  I don’t want to get into the details. I’d have to explain that we met because Kendry and Palmer have the interpersonal skills of jackals. That she picked me, even though I did nothing to deserve it, and I don’t know how to be normal or accessible or use my powers for good. “She joined one of the event committees a couple weeks ago. We’re helping Maribeth with the homecoming dance.”

  “Autumn is,” he says, like the very concept is impossible. “Isn’t that stuff kind of…not her thing?”

  “The weird part is, she’s actually good at it. I mean, once she got over how incredibly boring it is.”

  “If you think it’s so boring, why do it?”

  And it’s not that I’m lying, exactly, but my answer is starting to feel tired. “Maribeth really likes that kind of stuff and she’s my best friend.”

  He doesn’t argue, but his expression makes me feel defensive anyway.

  “Look,” I say. “She’s the only one who’s ever really okay with how I am. Everyone else, it’s like they see a different person. This nice, obedient, well-adjusted girl who doesn’t actually exist.”

  Marshall nods, still giving me that look of grave concern. “Did you ever think maybe you’re showing them that?”

  The question is frankly bizarre. “Of course I’m showing them that. That’s the whole point. If I didn’t, then it would just be one big advertisement for all the ways it’s impossible to like me.”

  “How can you say that?”

  “Because they don’t.” I only mean it in the flattest, most accurate sense, but it comes out sounding strangled.

  “Whatever,” he says. “Fuck them, then. I like you.”

  Which is irrefutable proof, as if any more was needed, that he still has no idea what I’m like. Waverly, unfiltered: brutal, calculating, morbid. Robot. He opens his mouth like he wants to say more, but it will just be one more demonstration of all the ways he still can’t see, and I can’t stand to hear it.

  “Never mind,” I say, cutting over him. “So, tell me about your big date. I heard you asked Heather McIntire to homecoming,”

  I don’t even sound spiteful—at least, not much—but his mouth snaps shut. His expression is so guilty I look away, trying to keep my eyes impassive, my mouth indifferent. Anyway, it’s not like I have a right to be jealous. I’ll be on the arm of CJ Borsen, who picked out the napkins for the refreshment table and who—excessive punctuation aside—is annoyingly perfect in every way.

  Marshall nods. He’s trying to look neutral, the same way I am, but the composure is so fake. “I asked her today.”

  All I can think is what Autumn said—he likes that she likes him. Maybe that’s all that matters. Heather, there to make him feel real, to make it matter that he has fears or wants or feels things or takes up space.

  “Because she likes you?” I say, almost whispering it.

  He shakes his head. “Because you’re going. And I’ve never been to one, and I thought it might be something to do. Look, I just figured, yeah, maybe I wanted to know what it’s like, for once…doing things.”

  “Well, whatever you’re expecting,” I say, sounding more sardonic than I mean to. “You’re going to be gravely disappointed.”

  Marshall just raises his eyebrows like he doesn’t give a fuck about disappointment. He reaches for the sheet and yanks it over us like a fort, shielding us from the room.

  “Tell me the good parts, then. Do you have some kind of special dress? I mean, that’s what girls wear at these things, right?”

  “I have a dress. I don’t know about special. I thought guys weren’t supposed to be interested in clothes.”

  “Come on,” he says. “Just tell me.”

  “It’s black, made of something slippery, satin or acetate. It’s open at the back.”

  “How far?” He touches the space between my shoulder blades. “Here?”

  I shake my head.

  He slides his hand down to the middle of my back. “Here?”

  I reach behind me and move his hand to the small of my back, almost to my butt. “Here.”

  He smiles and it looks completely involuntary, like the smile bypassed his brain and went straight to his mouth without him having to decide it was the right response. “God, that’s hot.”

  We sit facing each other, with the sheet draped over us. Looking into his eyes is like looking into a metaphor, something by T. S. Eliot or Oscar Wilde. It’s the ocular equivalent of every smart, cynical poem. Every book I’ve ever enjoyed in secret. I’ve spent my life wishing that gay dead men could be my boyfriend, and Marshall is right here, realer than any of them.

  His smile is small and miserable and then gone. “I could tell her I’m not going with her.”

  “No, you couldn’t. You’d feel bad.”

  “I’d do it anyway,” he says, and I can already see the moment.

  Heather, the dull, hurt look blooming on her face like a bruise, like he slapped the hopeful right off her.

  And him, hating himself, but doing it anyway because he truly believes it’s the necessary thing. Because he has some fantasy that I will become emotionally accessible overnight. That if he just calls off his date, I will magically figure out how to dismantle my own highly advanced insecurity system.

  He’s already looking past me, talking himself through it. The big, tearful blowup, the damage control. She’ll cry, but only for a little. After a few minutes—a few days—she’ll pull it together and ultimately forgive him. He’s imagining a heartfelt resolution, like in movies or TV. Like I am not the most selfish person in the history of the world.

  “Don’t,” I say, untangling us from the sheet. “It wouldn’t be fair. And anyway, I’m not going to flake on my date, so what would be the point?”

  It takes Marshall a second, but he nods. “Who are you going with?”

  It’s strange to think we’ve been sharing our nights for two weeks and this has never come up—my ostensible boyfriend. Major player in high school sports and politics, minor annoyance in the jagged, austere landscape of my life.

  “CJ Borsen.”

  Marshall’s expression is scandalized. “Oh come on. That guy sucks. Don’t go with him.”

  “I told him I would. I can’t just change my mind.”

  “You could,” he says, staring out the window. The glass is made impenetrable by the lamp, reflecting the room back at us. “But you won’t.”

  “No, I won’t, because it’s not a fair thing to do.”

  He doesn’t answer, but the look he gives me is eloquent enough. This isn’t fair either. I know that.

  When I reach for him, he buries his face in my hair. “This is the best thing I’ve got righ
t now, and it’s not even real.”

  I close my eyes, breathing his skin, the realest, most important thing that’s happened all day. “Don’t ever say that I’m not real.”

  “This,” he says. “This isn’t real.”

  .

  By Saturday, my arches are still breathtakingly painful. I’ve applied ice, heat, Tiger Balm. Gentle stretches, lots of rest. Doctor’s orders. I’ve done everything I was supposed to, and nothing’s changed. I have officially managed to damage myself in a way that is completely beyond my capacity to ignore.

  When I get dressed for the dance, I do it like an acrobat, trying to stand without putting weight on my feet. The theory is notionally sound, but I’m defeated by the physics.

  I apply my eyeliner the way Autumn showed me, a heavy black swoop that flares at the outside corners. The way it transforms my face reminds me of the day we browsed the drugstore together, how contrived that seems now. There is no conceivable way that Autumn has ever needed someone else to explain a neutral palette to her.

  Her fashion expertise is nothing short of stellar. The dress she picked for me is darkly perfect, and my new haircut is the best thing that’s ever happened—a style that looks good no matter whether it’s wet, dirty, slept on, hanging in my face, or slicked back like a ’50s greaser.

  CJ picks me up at eight, with Hunter and Maribeth already in the backseat. The boys both tilt their heads in approval as I climb into the car, but Maribeth unbuckles and leans over the center console to stare at me. Her horror is deep, total, and apparently genuine.

  “Oh, Waverly, you cut it! I thought you were growing it out.”

  I look at her, trying to see myself the way she must, these little twin dolls trapped in the center of her pupils. “Why would you think that?”

  But I know. As far as she’s concerned, we settled this weeks ago, the day she casually expressed her hatred of short hair on girls. She’s had the final word, and that word was supposed to be law, and now here I am, running around messing up her neat little world.

  My feet feel like something sharp and possibly scalding is stuck into the very center of my soles. I lean my head back and fight the impulse to slip off my stupid shiny heels. The whole way to the restaurant, I do calf stretches, pressing my toes against the vinyl floor mat and staring out at the street.

 
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