Rules of my best friends.., p.14
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       Rules of My Best Friend's Body, p.14

           Matthue Roth
 
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  “Oh my G-d.”

  “I thought he told you!”

  “How would he have told me?”

  “I don’t know, I just thought—you’re friends—”

  “Did you kiss him?”

  “Arty!”

  “Okay, maybe it’s not fair to ask.”

  “It really isn’t.”

  “But...Damon? You went out with Damon? Like, romantically?”

  “Arty, I’m sorry. It’s all bad timing, all of this—he’s felt like this about me for a while. He told me a few days before you did. We realized it would be awkward for you; we were all going to talk about it—”

  “A few days before?”

  “Neither of us wanted to upset you!”

  “It’s not a race. It shouldn’t be, like, whoever asks you out first wins.”

  “Everything was happening so fast, and I couldn’t—”

  “Did you like him? Like, before he asked you?” My brain scanned through the events of our recent past. Searching for evidence, for some event or interaction I’d interpreted the wrong way. A clue. I had no clue. They couldn’t hold it against me if I had no clue, could they. “Did you like me?”

  She squirmed.

  “I don’t know,” she said.

  “But don’t I at least deserve a chance? I was your best friend, don’t you deserve to give me a chance to prove myself to you? Before you go and throw yourself at my best friend?”

  “I didn’t throw myself at him! Arty, you and I have a really intense relationship. It’s...it’s beyond just a crush. But I never thought of you like that. I want us to be forever friends. I didn’t just want to kiss you and ruin everything forever.”

  “Kissing me wouldn’t ruin everything forever,” I said. “It might have been the beginning of forever.”

  She sighed again and slid to her feet. “I’m sixteen,” she said. “Forever feels so far away. And to be horribly honest, any sort of romantic stuff these days is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. I wanted to try it out—I wanted that—him—to not be my only sexual experience. But I’m just not ready for it, Arty. With you or with anyone else.”

  “So…” I fumbled for truth, for some sort of constant. “What’s going to happen with you and Damon? Are you still going out?”

  Now she was close to the door. I could feel the encounter slipping away, and along with it, any chance I had to make it all better. She considered the question and looked at me askew “That’s something Damon and I have to work out for ourselves, just the two of us. It’s completely separate from you and me, Arty.”

  “So there’s still a you and me?”

  “Arty, of course there is! We’re friends!”

  “Well, you can’t be too surprised at my reaction. I mean, if you asked me ten minutes ago, I’d say you and Damon were just friends, too.”

  It took her a long time to reply, and when she did, her voice was hollow and sad, as if, in that thirty-second window, she’d gone away for ten years.

  “Arthur,” she said, “you and I are wonderful together. We have an amazing connection, and I want it to last. But we aren’t acting like friends these days. You keep acting like you want something from me, and I don’t know if it’s something I can give. I’m getting on with my life without you, Arty. You should, too.”

  She left. She left, and I was alone, one person in a pool big enough for hundreds, and I wasn’t even wearing my swimming suit.

  hey ho, let’s go

  I was still wet when I crawled into the back seat of my parents’ car. My drenched hair was matting in front of my eyes. It was the closest I’d come in weeks to making them ask me what was going on. They still didn’t say a word. I was meticulous about my school work, my projects, my tests. As long as I stayed on top of that, they let me slide on other things.

  I pressed the side of my face against the glass. The cold outside the window instantly spread to my hair and my ear. I wondered if I could catch a cold like this, without ever going outside.

  A song came on the radio and it was one of Larissa’s favorite songs. I’d never really liked it. The singer’s voice was adorably confident, like she was telling you secrets and like she couldn’t be happier about it, but the music was too broken-up and staccato. It was all rhythm and no melody. Tonight, I understood every second of it. I let my head fall against the window for real now, most of my face turned toward the outside, because I was crying, and I didn’t want my parents to see it, but it felt so good to cry. My tear ducts opened up and they came, freely, like a valve had been opened, and as they flooded out so did all my bad memories. Gone, just like that.

  I inadvertently let a gasp escape.

  “What’s wrong?” said my father from the front seat. “I changed to your radio station. I listened to it all the way from home.”

  I knew he wanted me to be proud of him, for expanding his musical tastes on his own, and maybe I was. But I couldn’t show it. I was feeling more withdrawn than ever.

  *

  I loved doing homework. It was like my favorite kind of video game. Tetris, Donkey Kong, Q*Bert, Legend of Zelda: where you don’t have a quest for anything, you just go through rooms, or bash bricks, or vanquish little monsters, your basic task-oriented sweep-up. (Oh, I knew that Zelda had an ultimate goal, but it was so much smoother to go through each room on a level, cleaning out all the creatures from them, especially since I could only play at friends’ houses, without the luxury of the days or weeks required to beat the game for real.) I just sorted my work into piles, all of them surrounding me on my bed like a miniature Stonehenge—a book to read, a proof to prove, a set of chemical equations to balance, and show all work, even though I usually did it in my head too fast to write everything down.

  Five piles. Five rooms to defeat. Really, it was no problem. You just had to kill them one at a time. You had to know how to defeat each one, and then you had to do it.

  I kept the radio on while I worked. It was a compromise with my parents, who didn’t want me to be distracted during my homework, but I told them it was only music and it helped me to work, it helped me keep going.

  They had no idea.

  There was no such thing as “only music.” Music wasn’t only anything.

  I turned it on—the real staticky, edgy station that I loved to listen to, not the acceptable-but-not-lifechanging station that I’d introduced to my parents—and the music poured out through speakers. The bass vibrated my skin against my skeleton, and the lyrics seeped into my brain. The chords changed. In my notebook, chemical reactions fizzed and burned. The answers checked out in the back of the book. The song climaxed.

  Without meaning to, my hands were playing air guitar.

  All was right with the world.

  At some point, my meditative state was interrupted by the DJ. I was just getting through my math, building up to English. English was my worst subject. I still got good grades, but they were acceptable, did-your-best good, not astoundingly good. I could tell. The way teachers graded me, it was like they were saying, Stick with the numbers.

  “Rounding out that set was Johnnie McKenna,” he said. “If you liked that track, why don’t you check her out later this week, she’ll be playing live with her band next Saturday night at the T.L.A. Theater—”

  I didn’t hear the rest. I didn’t need to. Johnnie McKenna was coming to town. When her album came out, Larissa and I found it online like a hidden treasure and listened to it on repeat while doing nothing else, just lying in front of the speakers, head to head. She was going to be here. In Philadelphia. This was a climactic moment in my and Larissa’s lives—

  If she’d ever talk to me again, I mean.

  *

  All night I wrestled with the compulsion to call her. If things were normal, an event like a Johnnie McKenna concert would be a three-alarm emergency, worth a midnight text or even trying to sneak a phone call. I withered through the knowledge that she was probably completely unaware of it, and that I held the secret key to unl
ock this potential magic spell.

  I heard the announcement on a Tuesday night. Wednesday in school I held my phone in my sock instead of in my backpack, where I’d been keeping it, since there was no one these days who needed to get in touch with me immediately. It didn’t ring at all. Thursday was completely dry, too. It was killing me, this news stuffed inside my chest, clawing at my flesh to get out.

  By Thursday afternoon—Hebrew School again—I’d reconciled myself to solitude. If she spoke to me, if she took the initiative, I’d tell her about it. No. I amended that rule in my head: I’d tell her if she even glanced at me. Because maybe that would mean that some part of her wanted to talk. I’d shoot her an imminent look in reply, I need to tell you something, and then I’d tell her. And then I would leave. Just drop the bomb and get out. I found out this information. Do with it what you will. I’d show her I was being selfless. That was the most amenable way to deal with it, I decided—to leave it in her court.

  As it turns out, I couldn’t even do that. I glanced at the far side of the classroom and she wasn’t there. The class was remarkably empty. Siggy Nudelman (one of the worst nerd offenders in the whole school; compared to him, I was almost socially acceptable) informed us that Bridleton High had the day off for teacher training.

  “It’s worse than I thought.” Milt let out a snort strong enough to make me want to offer him a tissue. “Looks like we’re down to the last guys standing.” He gave us a grim nod of respect.

  Then it was Friday, and Fridays moved fast. When I got home that day, I told my parents that, tomorrow night, I was going to a concert with friends from school.

  It came out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying. I froze. I released a silent prayer (before I could remind myself, yet again, that I didn’t believe in G-d) that this would go easy.

  “That’s great,” said my mother. “Do you need a ride?”

  No other questions.

  I was so thankful, I ran straight to my room and spent the rest of the night doing homework—English homework, even—in gratitude.

  keep it like a secret

  I took the El train downtown. I could have asked my parents to drive me and saved the money—they would’ve even dropped me a block away, if I’d asked them to—but I didn’t want to feel indebted to them. I wanted tonight to be all mine.

  I got on the train at the end of the line, not far from our house. I was able to get a seat to myself, and I moved in all the way, kissing the glass again. When my stop came and I pulled away, I caught sight of my reflection and I didn’t recognize myself. My hair long and wild, my clothes dark, tighter than they used to be. I only stopped for a second, and then there was the train’s dispassionate voice, warning me that the doors were closing and the next stop was City Hall. I got off quick, still haunted by myself, and trying to shake it off.

  At the door I paid my cover—my dad had slipped me a pair of twenties on the way out—and entered into the concert hall. I bypassed the table (her only album, Drunken Water Walker, I already owned, and I was definitely not the sort of person to buy a t-shirt, even one of hers). I saw a gaggle of girls who might have been a year or two older than me, except for the way they were acting. Tight clothes, too much makeup, and a volume of giggling that seriously should’ve come from a crowd three times their size. They were ringed around a calendar of upcoming features, discussing which bands they’d heard of. Needless to say, they only knew the groups who were already on mainstream radio, and they’d already decided that all the other bands sucked. Please, I thought (praying, I realized, for the second time that week), don’t let Johnnie get famous, not just yet. Don’t let people like these be the whole audience.

  It wasn’t until I stepped into the main room that it occurred to me, maybe Larissa did know about tonight. It had probably been announced on the radio more than just once. Then there were advertisements. Newspaper write-ups. The Internet. Johnnie’s blog. No. Did Larissa still subscribe to Johnnie’s blog? I was terrified that she would be here. I was terrified she would miss it. Really, I was just terrified of life without Larissa.

  The concert room was large and relatively empty. It was a huge black box with a stage at the front, more like a drama rehearsal space than a concert hall. A few packets of people stood around—a few younger than me, most noticeably older. One small group staked out the territory right in front of the stage, at the center, so they could make eye contact with Johnnie before anyone else did. Everyone looked really cool, really casual. Why had I changed into a button-down shirt and slacks before coming? The last concert I’d been to was the Philadelphia Orchestra’s holiday show with my parents. I think I was five. Or else it was a kids’ band called Trout Fishing in America who sang nursery rhymes that all ended with “throw him out the window.”

  Here, everyone was dressed like they were hanging out at a friend’s house.

  I didn’t know people dressed this way. I just didn’t want to look like I didn’t belong here, like I wasn’t worthy of knowing about the concert. I wrapped my arms around myself, feeling hopeless. Then I attempted to retrofit, folding my arms in front of my chest, no-nonsense style. Nope.

  Other people were looking at me. Not conspicuously, just checking me out. Who’s that kid overdressed and all alone? I stuck close to the stage as though I was waiting for the opening band. Maybe they’d think I was a big fan of this first act that no one else had ever heard of.

  The band started mercifully soon. They were called Bloody Awesome, and they were a singer, a drummer, and an accordionist.

  “We are Bloody Awesome!” shouted the singer when they were all ready. She paused for people to laugh, but nobody did.

  They launched into their first song. They were surprisingly good. The small crowd at the front of the stage quickly dissipated—they probably wanted the opening act to be exactly like Johnnie, and it wasn’t—but I was riveted. The way that woman screamed instead of singing. How the drummer tried to play three rhythms at once to compensate for the lack of other instruments. How the accordion lines were unexpectedly catchy and fun to listen to. I stood through the first songs of the set, enraptured. Just watching them.

  When I finally broke away to check out the crowd, it appeared that the room had filled up. I’d harbored a momentary fantasy/fear that only a few people would show up, and Johnnie would be forced to play before an intimate crowd. Maybe she’d call on each of us and ask us our favorite song. Maybe I’d get the title wrong and she would laugh at me.

  No, there were enough people. People swarming the main floor. People at the bar, ordering drinks and flirting. People pressed against the back wall. The only place there weren’t people was toward the front. A couple of kids, mostly girls, spontaneously decided to dance to the whacked-out thrash-polka band. Hand in hand, they whirled each other in circles around the crowd-less space. (Everyone had probably cleared out because they were afraid of being attacked.) I stood for a moment in admiration, turning away from the band, watching the controlled chaos of those kids.

  Then I felt someone grab hold of my wrists.

  I protested, tried to squeeze out of them. It was a mistake. The girl’s hands were surprisingly firm.

  “Sorry,” I gasped, “you’ve got the wrong—”

  I gave up. The world was spinning.

  No.

  I was.

  The room was no longer a box, but a 360-degree circle. My feet moved faster than I could control. Kicking into each other, trying to keep from falling down. Trying to keep up.

  The world whirred. I saw the colors of the concert hall, velvety backdrops, the bright blue bar, the multicolored stage lights. They blended together. I threw my head back.

  I stopped fighting it. I threw myself into the dance.

  The song broke off. The accordionist was unstrapping his accordion, the drummer walking away. The lead singer grasped the microphone stand, beaming triumphantly at the crowd.

  “You guys are the bestest,” she said. “Not you zombies watc
hing from the back. I’m talking about the kids pogo-ing up here. They could teach us all a lesson. Thanks, you guys.”

  My face reddened. I could feel it burn. She was talking about me. Well, not me, but the group who’d abducted me.

  The group.

  The girl...

  “Nice job, Arthur,” the girl beamed at me. “I didn’t know you had it in you. I honestly never thought you could dance.”

  “Carrie?”

  Her hair was like I’d never seen it before, wild and serpentine, set in explosive gravity-defying braids. She wore a tank top made completely of sequins and a ’50s poodle skirt. I barely recognized her as the girl from the school bathrooms, like she was usually Peter Parker and tonight she was Spider-Man.

  Or, rather: Like usually she was Clark Kent and tonight she was Superman. Because tonight, this—this felt like the real her.

  “I can’t dance,” I confessed to her. “Or I never could until just now, at any rate.”

  Carrie Moss laughed. It took me a second to realize she was laughing with me, not at me. But then I laughed, too.

 
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