Places no one knows, p.7
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       Places No One Knows, p.7

           Brenna Yovanoff
 

  I take out a green felt pen I never use and uncap it like I’m watching from outside myself. Underneath the secret, I write, in neat block letters:

  I leave the bathroom wondering if giving unqualified medical advice constitutes some kind of malpractice.

  But the sentiment is right.

  I decide that at most, it must amount to practicing common decency without a license.

  .

  Home—where the spring that’s coiled inside me unwinds a little, where the gears stop grinding. Where no one is waiting or watching, or expecting me to be anything but bright and sharp and self-contained.

  In the kitchen, there’s a stack of takeout menus on the counter and everything smells warm, like ginger and lemongrass. My parents are standing in perfect symmetry with the island between them. They’re eating Thai food out of paper containers and talking about determinist psychology.

  No one else’s parents like each other as much as mine do. They are charged like nucleons, paired like magnets. They communicate using a cool, coded language of theories and statistics, but their eyes are always locked in flirtatious combat.

  “So tell me,” she says, “about that Cambridge study on automatic eating.” Her hair is shot with gray, and under the kitchen light, it looks silver. “I can’t remember if it suggested industry-manufactured addiction, or just offered conclusive proof that people can be manipulated into consuming whatever you tell them to.”

  He smiles, gesturing with his chopsticks. “Does this mean you’re going to try and convince me that volition is a flawed concept because of peer pressure?”

  She takes another bite of pad see ew before launching into a mini seminar on social conditioning.

  I climb onto one of the tall stools at the counter, watching as my parents conduct their courtship rituals. I eat green curry out of the plastic tub, thinking that I have never seen two people so in love, and so completely untouchable.

  It’s not that they fake the fake parts better than I do, because they don’t. My mother is easily the strangest person I know. It’s more like they know a language I’ve never encountered. A dialect you can only speak with someone who actually understands you.

  Suddenly, I want to know what they’d think about the spill wall. Maybe one of them would understand the psychosocial appeal of confession. Maybe they could make the wall make sense. As soon as I imagine the conversation, though, it’s an unmitigated disaster. Me, trying to explain that I wrote something there today—their hyper-rational, law-abiding daughter has defaced school property. Them, just as baffled by the entire concept as Maribeth is.

  Answering someone’s cry for attention is not in my character. I’ve never been one to involve myself in someone else’s problems. But what I wrote today seems more like fulfilling a moral obligation. I think maybe if a person is asking—begging—for attention, it’s because they need it.

  When I leave the kitchen, I can almost feel my mother’s eyes flick to the doorway after me. She knows I’m not there anymore—it’s not that the information hasn’t registered. It just doesn’t mean anything.

  In my room, I dust a pair of crickets with mineral powder and feed Franny and Zooey, watching them stalk delicately around their terrariums.

  After the carnage, I sit with my knees drawn up and my physics notes scattered around me. I consider lighting the candle again—whether I should, whether it’s safe. Whether I imagined what happened on Friday. If it’s even possible to just imagine something as inarguable as a pile of dirt in your bed.

  Maribeth would say that anything is possible if you set your mind to it. Except she’s talking about acing the SAT, not late-night interlocational travel. I try to picture what she’d say if she knew I dreamed a dream so real I woke up with mud on my feet.

  Maribeth has always been a believer in the power of persistence in the face of ambiguity. Don’t understand a social situation or a sample set in pre-calc? No problem. Learn by doing. Want to be one of the most powerful girls in school, but don’t know how to get there? Enlist a friend’s help, devise a system and a plan, never look back. Pedal to the metal, full speed ahead, you’ll figure it out. One thing follows another.

  But I know something else, and it is this:

  The world is under no obligation to be sane or orderly.

  There was a regional meet in Baker once, freshman year, and the whole cross-country team stayed up way past curfew, crammed into a block of group-rate hotel rooms, eating Skittles and talking about who’d done it and who hadn’t, the it in this context being sex. (It always is.)

  I’d been rattling all day and was just getting worse. No one was remotely close to sleep, and I was beginning to feel jagged, like if I didn’t get away, I was going to fly into shards like a dropped cup.

  I took a dollar bill and a keycard. I went out to get a Coke and then kept going. My ears were ringing, my hands were tingling, and I walked faster. Out in the porte-cochere, the bellhops were wrestling with people’s luggage, hurrying to get it off the curb because it looked like rain. Over the street, the clouds were dark and towering.

  My pajamas were a rayon shorty set with tiny ducks all over them. I should have been shivering, but the sidewalk was warm. The wind gusted as I stepped off the curb. The street felt gritty under my bare feet and I started to run.

  I’d gone six blocks when the lightning started, cutting the sky into a blinding network of cracks like a broken windshield, and I understood I was doing something reckless—dangerous, even. But it’s so hard to tell when something’s actually dangerous, or if it just feels that way.

  I came around the turn at the end of a wide, residential street, and the sky seemed to open in one colossal thunderclap, so close the pavement shuddered. For a second, the world lit up white, and in an instant, the street was full of moths. They came plunging down out of the trees and surging up from the wheel wells of parked cars, like the night had exploded around me in tiny silver pieces. Then the wind tore down through the street, scattering leaves and branches. Scattering the moths. Thunder clapped like hands, and they were gone.

  Afterward, I never knew if they were there at all, or something I’d told myself to make the night seem magical, or just my eyes. I raced myself back to the Hyatt. No one had noticed I was gone. I wiped the grit off my feet and climbed into the bed I was sharing with Kendry, not sure if the memory was real or imaginary. If I’d even gone out into the storm at all.

  I push my homework out of the way and get out the candle. This is the world, and nothing in the world is ever truly inexplicable. But my heart beats harder just thinking about moths and dead leaves. I’m breathing too fast now for no good reason. When I work up the courage to strike a match, I hold it so long it gutters out, leaving me with a blackened strip of cardboard and a burned finger, trying to think whether or not it hurts.

  I light another one and it flickers gently, reflecting off the votive jar.

  Okay, so. Let’s be logical. Consider the possibilities. Maybe sleep is miraculous—a strange doorway to something unknown. Maybe the other night, I accidentally dreamed myself into someone else’s backyard.

  Or maybe sleep is just a normal biological function, and I’m letting myself be intimidated by a candle.

  I take a breath and touch the flame to the wick.

  Under the covers, I count down like I’m preparing for liftoff. With my arms tucked close at my sides, I fall through darkness and cold murky air.

  MARSHALL

  Gloss

  The thing about the Captain’s house is, someone pretty much always winds up puking. This time, it’s Ollie.

  He makes it to the kitchen sink and then leans there, spitting into the garbage disposal. When I ask if he wants me to take him home, he shrugs and says he just needs to lie down for a while, which is Ollie-speak for yes, he wants to go home, but he’s worried about puking in my car. I get him a glass of water and leave him lying on his face on the floor of Hez’s bathroom.

  Without him there to run interferen
ce, I’m fair game for the kind of life choices he’d usually keep me away from. When I scroll through my phone, though, Heather’s name is missing from my contacts. Instead, there’s a new entry all the way at the bottom: You Don’t Want to Do This.

  I laugh a little, but it’s not a good laugh. It’s short and dry, and even when he’s not around to say it, Ollie knows the deal. How long has it been since I texted her? Long enough that her name could have been missing for months. Long enough I’ve nearly forgotten how shitty it feels knowing I don’t feel that way about her. But her mouth is warm, her breasts are amazing, and she will always call me back.

  I’m in the living room messing with the stereo when she finds me.

  She’s the girl I’m supposed to be with—the one who will always wait for me to call first, and maybe even notice that I’ve spent every night for the last week getting stoned at my brother’s house, but won’t make things weird by asking about it. She’s the girl who will always have a joke or an excuse, and then back off if things get too close to actual.

  She’s clearly drunk and doesn’t mind that I’m not in the mood to talk. It’s easy to just lean into it. Make out with her. Enjoy it.

  I can’t remember if the Captain’s story about Hez and the recliner actually involved him pissing on anything. Chances are pretty good that it did. The chair is more comfortable than the couch, though, and when I put my face down close to the upholstery, it smells okay.

  We’re tangled up with each other, sinking into the cushions, and then Heather starts running her hands up and down my shoulders. When she touches my chest, it makes me feel keyed up in a dirty way. I put my hand on her back, right above her butt, and she presses against me, leaning in for the kiss.

  Her body is soft, and I wish that whatever I’m feeling for her would be more than just a crazy urge to put my hand up her shirt. The way I feel when she wedges her thigh between my knees kind of makes me hate myself.

  “I’m not wearing a bra,” she whispers, like I wasn’t already obscenely aware of it. She’s getting lip gloss all over my ear.

  I touch the side of her breast, the curve of her waist. There’s nothing but a layer of shirt between us. I’m falling into it, getting lost in the feeling of her mouth on mine, when someone starts to laugh. It’s a flat, scornful sound.

  When I open my eyes, Waverly Camdenmar is standing in the corner with her hip cocked out to one side, arms folded, eyebrows raised. She’s wearing blue pajamas, with a collar and a pocket and buttons shaped like birds. She has the weirdest look on her face—this mix of fascination and disgust, like she’s watching something repugnant on TV. Like I’m the punch line.

  WAVERLY

  3.

  Heather McIntire is in all the general-track classes at school and is exactly the kind of girl who wraps herself around boys like Marshall—too much eyeliner, not enough shirt. He’s holding her in his lap, touching the outside of her hip, her thigh. I lean against the wall and wait for him to notice me.

  As I watch, he moves higher, fumbling for her breast. I’m conscious of my mouth suddenly, how dry and empty it is. How untouched. CJ Borsen materializes in my head and stays for exactly one unenticing second. I can’t even imagine kissing him the way Marshall’s kissing Heather—all lips and hands and too much tongue. The scenario is impossible, not to mention vaguely repulsive.

  Heather clearly has no such reservations about Marshall. He’s got his head tipped back, eyes half-closed. She attaches herself to his neck, writhing against him like a squid.

  He sighs, slipping his hand down the back of her jeans. And I can’t help it—I laugh. I don’t know what else to do. I laugh because the scene is so profoundly uncomfortable.

  His eyes fly open and pin me where I stand. He goes rigid, sucking in his breath.

  Heather must think he’s demonstrating ecstasy, because she kisses him harder, apparently under the impression she’s improving on her technique. He’s staring over her shoulder, eyes fixed on my face. When I smile, he yanks his hand out of her pants.

  “Hi,” I say.

  He flattens himself against the chair, shaking his head, and mouths the word what?

  Heather turns in my direction, but her gaze doesn’t quite connect. “Are you talking to someone?”

  Marshall doesn’t answer, only shakes his head and untangles himself from her arms. She slides out of the chair and onto the carpet, looking indignant, but he just stands up and steps around her.

  “Hey,” she says, sounding shrill and confused. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

  The music is a thrumming racket of bass and suburban angst, and he walks out of the room and toward the back of the house.

  “What the hell?” she calls after him, but she doesn’t sound angry, just hurt.

  After a minute, I push myself away from the wall and follow him. The house is dim and smells like popcorn. The carpet is itchy. Every surface feels very, very real.

  I find Marshall in the little back-porch laundry room, wedging his way past an umbrellaed patio table to lean against the washing machine. I stand in the doorway while he lights a cigarette. He doesn’t smoke it, though, just holds it. He’s looking through the porch screen, into the backyard.

  “You should put that out,” I say, and his whole body jerks like I’ve electrocuted him.

  I slip past the table to stand next to him. “Didn’t you hear? They found tentative evidence suggesting smoking kills you.”

  He’s huddled against the washer, leaning away from me. His mouth is so tight that his jaw looks wired shut. “What is wrong with you?” he says in a hard whisper.

  I smile, but it feels breakable. “Nothing’s wrong with me.”

  He laughs in a tired, breathless way that lacks conviction, but makes me feel small anyway.

  I draw myself up—shoulders back, chin raised. “Nothing’s wrong, except that you’re breathing your sad chemical dependency in my face, and secondhand smoke is the silent killer.”

  “Seriously.” His expression is rigid and he still won’t look at me. “Why are you here?”

  Under the reek of the cigarette, he smells like beer and pot and a girl’s sugary perfume. I gesture behind me to the living room, where Heather is probably still sitting on the floor. “Hey, I’m not the one making a cornucopia of poor decisions. Why are you here?”

  He glances at me, then mashes the cigarette out in a chipped saucer. “Why am I at my brother’s house? He’s my brother. Am I not supposed to visit my brother?”

  I look at him so long he looks away. Finally, he scrubs his hands over his face and sighs. “Fuck, it’s complicated. I mean, come on, don’t you have problems?”

  I don’t answer. It’s not the kind of question that you answer. Everyone has problems.

  “Just…things are kind of shitty right now, okay? Sorry if I don’t feel like talking about it with someone whose entire life revolves around good grades and being popular.”

  He looks angry, and under that, tired. I think of how he starts to doze in class, like there’s no way to keep his eyes open when the transitive verbs come marching out.

  “You could, you know. Talk to me.” When I say it, my voice sounds very soft, like it’s not coming from me, but from the girl who wrote well-meaning advice on the wall today. The one who has a place in her disposition for tenderness, even if it’s small. “If you wanted.”

  He laughs dryly, turning to stare out into the yard. “Look, all I want right now is to go back inside and get a beer and act fine and okay and normal.”

  Act, he says. Act, not be. He’s standing with his back to me, like he wishes he were still kissing Heather.

  “It is completely appalling to get drunk and make out with strangers.”

  “It’s normal.”

  I raise my eyebrows. “Well, you know what they say—everyone loves a self-medicator.”

  “Shut up.” He says it flatly and I can’t figure out if he sounds bored or mad or just hopelessly, profoundly hurt. “That’s not what I meant. A
nd she’s not a stranger. She’s just…she’s Heather.”

  His voice is scaring me a little. It makes him different from Marshall in class—the boy who gives bored, insolent answers or sleeps through unit review. The boy who shoved a hall pass at me and gave me a look like I was negligible. Nothing.

  He’s fidgeting with the dead cigarette, squeezing it, picking at it. The paper bleeds tobacco from a collection of little wounds.

  I reach over and take it away from him, dropping it in the saucer. “Stop it.”

  Instead of arguing or taking it back, he squints at me. “What the shit happened to your hand?”

  I turn my palms up. The porch light is dim, but it’s enough to illuminate a dusting of soot, a small, shiny burn on my index finger. In the saucer, the cigarette has a black smudge on it the size and shape of my thumb.

  “Nothing. A science experiment.” I look away and wipe my hand clean on my pajamas. “I was lighting matches.”

  Out in the yard, someone is setting off a handful of bottle rockets. They tear across the sky, leaving a trail of sparks, followed by the small, hollow pop as they explode.

  He doesn’t ask what I’m talking about, just digs in the pocket of his jeans and pulls out a red plastic lighter. “Try this next time.”

  I move closer, a little, almost touching his arm. Here in the laundry room, it’s just the two of us, me and my strange, nocturnal phenomenon. Everyone else is far away.

  “I don’t sleep,” I say.

  Marshall shakes his head, still holding up the lighter. “What?”

  “You asked if I had problems. I never sleep. That’s my problem.”

  He doesn’t answer. He watches me so long I start to feel awkward, like he’s actually seeing me.

  “I could do better,” he says finally. His voice is low, like we’re trading confessions. “At school,” he adds. “It’s just that my whole life is completely buried under all this other stuff. But I could.”

 
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