Places no one knows, p.25
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       Places No One Knows, p.25

           Brenna Yovanoff
 
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  “You have a life.”

  “No, what I have is you, and then a whole bunch of other shit.”

  It’s hazardous, though, being that much to someone. When you’re the yardstick that everything else is measured against, eventually, you just fail.

  “Every morning, I wake up alone,” he says.

  “So do I.”

  He keeps going like I haven’t said anything. “I wake up and everything I had before is gone.”

  I nod with my forehead pressed against the glass.

  “No,” he says. “You don’t have that. I go to school every day and I watch you float around someplace I can never get to. You don’t lose anything. You just go back to your real life and I’m not there.”

  I close my eyes and think of everything I have. The transcripts and the course times and the clubs, performances, activities, all worth so much on paper, the currency for a better, brighter life. They’re quantifiable, measurable, valuable, but they’re not mine. They’re a collection of accomplishments designed to prove that I’m good and capable, but all they really mean is that I’m not a failure. Not a total loss, and that’s scientifically invalid. You can’t define anything by what it’s not.

  I thought the two of us together would be enough, that we’d just stay safe in the blurry territory of nighttime and it would all be fine. But there is no escaping the reality—I run on jet fuel and pistons. Even here in the privacy of his car, I am not reachable.

  “You don’t have to keep working so hard to love me,” I say, and my voice sounds strangely clipped. Professional. “It’s okay if you don’t.”

  “God damn it, would you stop acting like you’re defective or something? There’s nothing wrong with you.”

  The pronouncement is so ridiculous, though. I laugh—a tiny digital laugh. He has no idea.

  “There’s nothing wrong with you,” he says again. “You’re freaked out, and whatever, that’s fine, but Jesus Christ! This isn’t something that’s only happening to you.”

  We hit the intersection at Jackson just as the light turns red. Marshall leans back, banging his head softly against the seat, pressing his fingers against his eyelids.

  “You know me, Waverly. You know all this stuff about me, all this weak, ugly stuff. Do you think that’s easy? You’re pretty much the only person who’s ever really known what I’m like, and it fucking destroys me that it’s not good enough.”

  I don’t have the language necessary to explain how wrong he is. There are no words for the substance of him, how overwhelmingly enough he is. The separation between what’s in my head and what might come out of my mouth has never been so insurmountably huge.

  “Why can’t you just tell me I’m not good enough?”

  “Stop it.”

  He turns to face me, and for the first time tonight, he sounds angry. “No. I want to hear you say it, and then I’ll get over it and I’ll move on or disappear or whatever. But I want you to tell me to my face.”

  I tug at the bottom of my jacket, looking out at the empty street and wet, shiny pavement.

  “I can live without you,” he says. “I’ve been doing it my whole life.”

  His voice is flat. It makes my skin hurt and I don’t say anything. When the light changes, he accelerates without looking over.

  The road flashes dizzying and wet under the streetlights, shining like the sea.

  Marshall swallows hard, like he’s swallowing against something barbed. “Everything is better when you’re there, but I won’t keep wrecking myself over you if you don’t feel the same way. I’m tired of this.” His voice is low, uninflected. He does sound tired.

  The air outside is hazy with tiny particles of water, too small to be rain. We’re less than a block from my house, from the life that no longer seems adequate. I don’t know how to ask for what I want. I don’t know how to be okay with wanting something.

  Marshall has no built-in sense of shame when it comes to expressing his desires.

  He pulls up to the curb and doesn’t kill the engine. “I want my lighter back.”

  “Fine. Give me a minute. It’s in my room.”

  When I come back out, he’s still idling at the curb, staring out over the neat suburban extravagance of my neighborhood.

  I toss the lighter onto the passenger seat. It shines under the dome light, small and ordinary. Cheap. “Does this mean we’re breaking up?”

  “No.” He turns and gives me a long, unreadable look. It’s cold and flat, and shuts me out completely. “To break up, you have to have been together at some point.”

  .

  I can’t sleep.

  This is nothing new.

  The nights are long and monotonous, and bleed into the days. The weekend passes like a bad dream.

  Monday comes and I make a performance art of punctuality. I arrive at every single class and meeting and activity exactly on time.

  Then Tuesday. Tuesday can fuck itself.

  Together. The word is neon, glowing in front of me, and a month ago, I didn’t know the meaning.

  Marshall, always breathless, always waiting for me, and I was so rabidly protective of it because it was mine. Mine. Mine and no one else’s.

  Now it’s nonexistent.

  On Wednesday, I go down to the west hall bathroom on my office hour to look at secrets, maybe occupy myself for a while with someone else’s problems. It’s been days since I visited the west hall bathroom. Days since it even occurred to me to worry about anyone else’s business.

  Maintenance has painted over the wall.

  It was bound to happen, but I hadn’t really considered that secrets could just disappear. Not now, when I need them.

  The new color is a whiter white than the other three walls. When I stand very close, I think I can still see a few pale ghosts in outline under the paint.

  What gives me the authority to offer anyone sage advice, anyway?

  On Thursday night, I pierce my ears.

  I sterilize the needle using a lighter and a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol. For the first one, I numb it with an ice cube, holding it there until the skin feels rubbery and like I’m touching someone else. After the initial resistance, the needle goes in easily.

  In the mirror, the girl’s eyes fill with tears, but her expression doesn’t change.

  The second one, I don’t bother with the ice. My reflection stares at me. Her face turns red, and then goes back to normal.

  I sit on the porch in my rabbit-print pajamas, with my bedspread wrapped around my shoulders like a cape, and watch the sun rise.

  MARSHALL

  Heartbreak

  I feel like I’m going to throw up.

  At first I thought it was nothing—just some twenty-four-hour thing, then a forty-eight-hour thing. But it doesn’t go away.

  My dad moves around the house like a ghost. We don’t look at each other. We pretend the blowup at the dinner table never even happened.

  All the things I want are hard to find the words for. That night—that ugly night at Autumn’s—Waverly was close enough to touch, and now she’s nowhere and I’m not even sure we were ever real at all. I have a disposable lighter and a memory of what it felt like to have someone see inside me and be okay with the mess there. I want to know I didn’t make this up.

  Autumn finds me out by the baseball diamond, sitting on the cement half wall behind the dugout. I’m supposed to be in Spanish, but I’m already so far behind that there’s not really any point. What’s another day?

  She scrapes her boots on the edge of the pavement like someone getting ready to walk into a house and flops down next to me.

  “Hey,” she says, like this is totally normal and I am always on the dugout wall instead of in class and she is always sitting down next to me.

  The wind is dry and brutal. It cuts through my clothes to the skin, and that’s good, because when all I can feel is cold, I don’t have to feel everything else.

  Autumn settles herself on the wall, pulling off h
er mittens. Then she sticks her hand in the pocket of my coat and starts digging around. After a second, she makes a triumphant noise and holds up my cigarettes.

  I haven’t smoked since before homecoming, but I still carry them around. It’s reassuring, knowing that if things get bad enough, I have them. I can take them out, lean close to the flame and maybe remember how to breathe.

  “Help yourself,” I say with my elbows braced on my knees.

  Autumn lights one and takes a couple drags. Then she scrubs it out on the wall and makes a face. “God—vile. How old are these?”

  I stare out at the packed dirt and it kills me that of all the words in the English language, she says vile, because it’s something Waverly would say.

  Autumn shoves the cigarette back in the pack, and then starts fishing around in my coat again, easy like that, like we never stopped being best friends.

  She leans back and kicks her feet up on the rail, flipping through my wallet. She counts my cash—seven dollars—bends the corners on my coffee-cart punch card, thumbs past my driver’s license. “Nice photo. Hi, I smoke crack.”

  “Look, can I help you with something? Otherwise, I’m not really in the mood.”

  She ignores me and starts lining up the stuff from my pockets in a wobbly row—spearmint gum, Rolaids, the red plastic lighter, the crumpled drawing telling me to come to her party. The vile and ancient cigarettes.

  I want to mess up the line before she can figure out the pattern. I think if she keeps looking, she’ll know everything about me. She’s already smoothing out the drawing, touching the lighter and some month-old gas station receipts. She stares at the Rolaids a long time.

  “Do you want to talk about anything, Holt? Maybe your life choices? Or your feelings?”

  I close my eyes against the sun. There’s an ache in my throat, but I already know I won’t cry in front of her. I can’t even cry when I’m alone. “Autumn, go away.”

  “Hey, are you okay?” Her voice sounds awkward, and when I open my eyes again, she’s got this strange, worried expression that doesn’t look like her at all, but maybe that’s not even the truth. Nobody knows what Autumn really looks like.

  “No,” I say. It’s weird to say it out loud, to have someone in my everyday real life ask me that like they care. I lean my head back, staring at the sky. “I hate school. I hate home, and my brother, and how my parents act. I hate November, and how everyone in this whole stupid place treats each other. I miss Waverly.”

  Even saying it hurts my chest. I’ve never said her name out loud to anyone besides…Waverly.

  “I know,” Autumn says. She leans in a little so our shoulders are touching, just barely. She doesn’t say anything else.

  The wind gusts across the infield in a storm of dust and gravel.

  I’ve been looking at Waverly’s face and her neck and her hair pretty much since the first time I saw her, but it’s so much harder knowing what’s underneath. The best parts are the hidden ones. The way she always knows all the literary symbols in a short story, and her real, true smile when she talks about strategies and inventions and ideas. How being cold is just the surface and her real smile and her real voice are so much warmer. The invisible parts are the ones I miss the most.

  “She was so much better than normal life,” I say. “She made me better.”

  Autumn glances over and shakes her head. “Don’t. That’s not how it works. Nobody makes you be anything. You just are that, whether you like it or not.”

  She doesn’t sound angry, but like she’s explaining the world.

  “That, then,” I say, looking at the empty baseball diamond. “That’s what I meant. Just that when I was with her, I was allowed to be better.”

  WAVERLY

  It’s after three a.m. when the family room door creaks open. My mom has padded downstairs on little cat feet and is standing over me.

  “Waverly,” she says. “We need to have a talk.”

  I look up from my American Gothic nest on the floor, a bloody dissection of theme and imagery. The phrase we need to talk is one I hate more than anything, but in my mother’s factual cadence, it sounds different than when Maribeth says it.

  “Is there anything you want to tell me?” She’s using her therapy voice, the one she keeps for cracking people open and digging around in their private dirt.

  “No,” I say, closing the book with my finger between the pages to keep my place.

  “I noticed you haven’t really been training for cross-country lately.”

  “I can’t right now,” I say, biting my cheek to keep the tears where they belong. “My feet are overworked, so I have to take a break.” Molly’s words, coming out of my mouth, making the problem sound small and manageable.

  “Oh,” she says. Then, with the most invisible compression of her mouth, “That must be hard.”

  I nod, sinking my teeth deeper into my cheek. It’s strange, spending so much time with Marshall has made it harder to be my normal self. Harder to lie.

  My mom is watching me closely. “I don’t think you’ve been sleeping,” she says.

  Her gaze is shrewd. No matter how flaky or disconnected she might seem, you’d have to get up pretty early to slip something past her. Fortunately for me, my median rising hour is four a.m.

  “I sleep,” I say, keeping my eyes on the mess of sticky notes and index cards. “There’s just a lot of stuff due for school right now, so I’m really busy.”

  “If you don’t feel comfortable discussing this with me, we can make an appointment for you to see Gary.”

  Gary. Her med-school buddy with the bad psychiatrist jokes and the worse neckties. He’s come to dinner a few times. His fingernails are always spotless.

  “I’m fine,” I say.

  For a second, my mom sways on the spot, like she might turn abruptly and go back to bed. Then she pulls her robe around her and sits down next to me, surveying my index cards. The scene strikes me as ludicrous suddenly, hilarious and compulsive, like I’m seeing us from above. We are not the gregarious mother-daughter team of primetime television.

  For a minute or two, I just sit there with her, feeling the comfortable hum. There’s a familiar frequency to her silences that makes all my own silences and idiosyncrasies okay. My mom knows more about neurobiology and has fewer criteria for “normal” than anyone I’ve ever met.

  “Mom,” I say to my color-coded grid of gothic trivia. “You love Dad, right?”

  The way a person avoids a question can tell you a lot about the answer. There are all kinds of ways to deflect uncomfortable inquiry. How can you even ask that? or Why, Waverly—what a horrible thing to say!

  Instead, she considers it. She looks exceptionally solemn, sitting there beside me, cross-legged with her hands in her lap.

  “Yes,” she says finally. “Yes, very much.”

  I know the story of how they met in the psychology department at Stanford and the longer story of how he came to the library every week to see her—how it took four months for her to agree to go out with him, because she was in the middle of a research project on eating behaviors in rats, and inflexibly certain that she would never date a person who wore oxblood loafers and listened to new wave.

  They were both abrasively intelligent, though, both ironic—the only creatures capable of occupying one another’s space long-term. I’ve always understood the why, but the mechanism behind it is mysterious.

  “How?” I say, horribly aware that this is not a question most people need to ask.

  She looks away, touching her hair. It makes her seem very young, suddenly. “He understands me—how I am. If I forget to come up for air, he reminds me. If I get too literal or too focused, he doesn’t take it personally. I’m better at loving him than anyone else, because he never makes me guess what he needs. And because he lets me.”

  “He just accepts you the way you are?”

  “Oh,” she says, hands flying up in surprise. “Oh, no. He enjoys me, but he doesn’t treat everything
about me as a permanent condition. I think that would be a mistake. I don’t always know when to make room, you know? That’s good for designing research or figuring out a problem, but once you throw another person in the mix, it’s not okay anymore.”

  But the phenomenon she’s describing is the hardest thing to master—the fact that who you need to be changes based on who is in the room, and still, it’s all actually just you. For the first time in my life, I’ve known what it’s like to feel ecstatic about someone—not the right way, but my way. I thought he made me a different person altogether, but maybe I was always holding those pieces inside me, waiting for a chance to use them.

  “The part where we enjoy each other is important,” my mother says, still touching her hair. She’s not looking at me. “But there are so many other considerations. You try to be a good partner and you fail. You try again. After a while, you teach each other how you need to be treated.”

  And therein lies the problem. I’ve spent most of my post-grade-school life learning by mimicry, emulation, analysis. I know how to recognize the significance of a tone or a gesture, but I’ve never really had a sense of how to treat people. Everyone around me acts like it’s simple—this orderly series of steps that doesn’t need documentation. Until now, my saving grace has always been Maribeth prodding me in the back, curating my words like a ventriloquist, providing the script, the list of appropriate expressions. I might be preternaturally skilled at strategy and subtext, but I’ve never known how to navigate the tangled landscape of emotions without someone else pointing me in the right direction.

  .

  Coffee is the only thing keeping me alive. It roars through my veins with the force of a thousand volts, the Hollywood horror experiment, born on an operating table, powered by insanity and lightning. If someone touched a match to the back of my neck, I’d go off in a flash of black powder and sulfur.

  There are too many people, and all their faces seem to bleed together. Every day, I search for Marshall, but he keeps not being there.

 
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