Rules of my best friends.., p.18
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       Rules of My Best Friend's Body, p.18

           Matthue Roth
 
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  As soon as I saw him seeing me—seeing us—I turned a Daredevil shade of red. “It’s, uh, it’s not real,” I stammered. “I know you guys don’t dress up in costumes. I was just, um, sketching—I do this all the time—”

  “Not real? Is that what you think?” Roderick smirked at me, either dirty or wise or paternal or some sort of other thing I didn’t yet know the word for.

  And then he said to me: “Honey, you have no idea.”

  He patted my head as he walked away, leaving me to wonder just what he meant by that.

  dancing on my grave

  In my mind I kept replaying scenes of Larissa. Like it was a movie I’d seen long ago, or a book I’d once read, one of those stories that hit you at exactly the right time in life and change the way you see everything else. And then you read some other books, or see a bunch more movies, and you kind of forget that the old one ever existed.

  Had we really been that close? Had we ever done the things we’d done? Sending each other dozens and hundreds of picture messages in a day, pretending to be on different continents when really we were across the class from each other, whispering secrets while lying on a bed together while we (painfully, painfully) avoided touching. Walking down the stairs to the Delaware River...or maybe walking across the water itself. Had she really taken me along to buy underwear, that first day of our acquaintance, the day we’d overrun the mall and made it ours together? Had any of that really happened? We were dreamlike. We had been.

  These memories felt fake and faded. As if I’d made them up myself, with no one else to remember them but Larissa. And now she wasn’t talking to me. There was a shadow where her presence was. Sometimes I’d want to turn to her and say, “Hey, didn’t we—”

  But I’d lost that right.

  Still, I could remember it all. I remembered one day, stumbling upon a protest downtown, five hundred people spread across the Quadrangle holding signs and yelling at the absent mayor of the city and the faraway brokers on Wall Street, shouting that we needed a change and we needed it now. We didn’t know it was happening, but we knew we agreed with it. Larissa and I shouted a bit—she threw her fist in the air; I was too embarrassingly self-conscious to—but that wasn’t why we were there. We were there because of the passion in the air; the spirit of things being new and volatile and on fire. Oh, we believed in the cause, too, but mostly that was how we felt about ourselves.

  *

  I shivered. I wasn’t outside. It was no longer sunny out, or warm. That time was an eternity ago. I was surrounded by mustard-colored walls, and underground, and beneath a set of stairs. In a corner, Roderick was choreographing Bethany, showing her how to spin and place her hands on her hips: he wore a baby t-shirt, and she wore a knitted sweater, and both were too short, and both rode up at the same time, exposing their belly buttons like that was a part of the dance routine.

  “You alright?” Someone touched my wrist, my bare skin, and for a second I thought it was Larissa. Then I jumped: Little Jen, startled, pulled away from me. She was staring at me with a worried look. I hoped she wasn’t offended.

  “I’m fine!” I yelped, coming back to Earth. “I’m sorry about that. I was just...thinking.”

  “It’s okay, man,” she said, gruffly, but concerned. “You just looked really faraway for a second. You looked like someone was dancing across your grave.”

  one of the guys

  Three sharp clinks against the glass of my bedroom window, tink tink tink. Even though it was freezing outside—snow was expected that weekend—I threw it open and looked down at the street. Thinking in my daze that it must be Carrie, or Roderick, or one of the others. Hoping against hope that it was Larissa.

  Against the charcoal black was the white of Damon’s winter parka. The hood was pulled tight around his face.

  “Damon?” I said.

  “Hey! Can I come up? Is it too late?” A stiff, mittened Disney animal fist waved up at me.

  “What are you doing here? Don’t you hate me?”

  “Don’t you hate me?”

  I thought about hating him. I thought about the last time we’d talked, the porn, the lost GizmoNo game, everything about him and Larissa. I hadn’t talked to him at all about it. I’d just decided that he was one more traitor and that I hated him. I thought about all hate I was feeling these days, and all the people who were a lot more complicated than just hate. There was still anger teeming in my body, but Damon seemed right now like the weakest target for it.

  I waved at him to come up.

  My parents probably would’ve said no, but they’d been silent for too long by now, either watching the late show or asleep. I was up. The way I was buzzing from school, I would still be up for hours.

  Without waiting for me to say no, he took off his gloves and scurried up the drainpipe. The pipe was slippery, and probably freezing as well, and so watching Damon climb was a little embarrassing. He’d done it a hundred times before, only never quite this disastrously. When he finally reached the top, and threw himself over the ledge to my bedroom, he slammed the window down (another, much louder tink) and sank against my wall.

  I gave him space to recover. He rubbed his hands together and breathed on them. Soon he stood up, peeled his coat off, and started hunting for something under my boxspring.

  “Damon, what are you doing?”

  “Looking for your snack food. Come on, why isn’t it here?”

  “Not that. I mean, coming over here at midnight after you haven’t spoken to me in forever. You almost broke my window.”

  “Did not.”

  “Almost.”

  “Almost doesn’t count. Arty, just tell me, where are they? Being this cold makes me hungry.”

  “If there’s a single crack in that glass...”

  “Please?”

  “I switched the hiding place. They’re over there. Inside the Enterprise.”

  I nodded to the scale model of the starship that had stood guard on my bureau forever. He unscrewed the saucer section. It was still mostly full of pretzel knobs. He dug out a fistful.

  “Just pretzel knobs? I was expecting Party Mix.”

  “Oh, that’s like the prize at the end. They’re hidden inside the rear nacelles. So what brought about this change of heart?”

  “What change?” He was all innocence, crouched on my bedspread. Innocence and a splattering of white pretzel crumbs across his chest.

  “You know, last I heard, you were dating my best friend and not talking to me.”

  He shifted. He stopped eating.

  “I wasn’t dating her,” he said. “Or at least, I’m not dating her anymore.”

  “What?!”

  “It happened a while ago. I asked her to go to a movie with me. We went out once or twice, but it was too weird. That’s what she said, anyway.”

  I knew that Larissa would’ve been the one to say that. I could practically hear their whole conversation in my head, both sides. I knew them both that well. If it was up to Damon, they’d still be going out, and they would’ve gone up to one of their bedrooms at the end of the first date and never come out. Presuming they made it as far as a bedroom.

  I must have looked truly nauseous, since Damon leaned across to the desk chair I was sitting on and gave my knee a weak but friendly shoulder-pat. “I’m sorry, man,” he said. “I should’ve asked you if it was okay. I know how close you guys are, and I owe you. I mean, you’re the reason Larissa and I know each other in the first place.”

  I said “hmm,” agreeing with his apology, if not with his reasoning. Then I asked again, “Why did you come to my house tonight?”

  “Oh!” Damon said as if it were the most obvious thing in the universe. “I heard you beat up Mitch in Hebrew School. I wanted to say, congrats, and sorry I missed it.”

  I eyed him strangely.

  “I was in Advanced Ladino when it happened,” he explained. “I tried to find you after, but you’d already gone.”

  “But Mitch is your friend,
” I said, being deliberately vague. I didn’t know how much Larissa had told him. Or if she’d said anything at all.

  “Mitch is a dick,” Damon said matter-of-factly. “He was your friend. I always tolerated him because of the free stuff. But he bugged the crap out of me.” He popped a pretzel knob into his mouth. “Why, what finally did it?”

  “Did it?”

  “Pushed you to the brink.” He narrowed his eyes. “Made you pull the trigger.”

  “Oh,” I shrugged, still trying to be vague. “You know. Just stuff would pour out of his mouth, and I’d have to try to ignore it. He thought he was the only person on Earth whose opinion counted about anything.”

  “He thought Larissa counted, too,” Damon countered.

  “What do you mean?” I tried to steady my voice. Keep it normal, innocent, I told myself.

  “Come on, you had to know. Mitch had the hugest crush ever on Larissa. When I first heard about you guys duking it out, I sort of automatically suspected that was what you were fighting about.”

  “But I don’t like her,” I blurted out.

  “No, I know that! You’re probably the only guy alive who doesn’t like her,” he said. “I mean, like that. But I figured, you can get sort of protective sometimes.”

  “Did you hear everything about today?” I said. “I got suspended. My E.C.s are blown. My college admissions are completely shot to hell.”

  “Nah. You’ve got a tight academic record, so the midrange schools will probably overlook it and the top-tier schools might turn a blind eye, as long as the rest of your stuff is solid. Or, what if, maybe you could sell it to them a different way? Let’s say you list each class as a separate skill, Hebrew and Bible coursework and an internship with a freelance journalist. You don’t even have to mention that you got grades, or that you got suspended. It’ll be like you did five extracurriculars instead of one.”

  “Damon,” I said, glowing, “you’re a genius.” I rose, surprising myself by getting ready to hug him. For the first time all day, I felt like I still had a future.

  Thankfully, he interrupted by holding up an unbroken nacho-powdered tortilla chip like it was hidden treasure. He smiled bashfully. “Are we good again?” he asked, a little anxious, a little hopeful.

  “We’re good,” I told him.

  reprise

  Winter descended. The sky gave in and finally snowed. We started to move slower, all of Philadelphia, like fish hibernating in frozen water, still swimming, still breathing, still feeding, only doing it all in suspended animation.

  I read on some website, there were a bunch of arrests in Bridleton for drugs. The article mentioned two high schools by name. One of them was the school Mitch and Larissa went to.

  My parents mentioned it to me over dinner. “So,” said my mom, “seems like the suburbs have it just as bad as the city.” Yep, there’s nothing like relative crime rates to make you feel more secure about your ghetto.

  The truth was, I didn’t mind. I didn’t feel superior like my mom did—I didn’t need to. If I never saw Mitch Martin again in my life, I’d be pretty satisfied. And if I did...well, I had a feeling we’d just walk our separate ways.

  Larissa, on the other hand, I wasn’t so sure about. My new life, my life without her, had achieved an oddly stable balance, and I was steadfastly determined not to do anything to upset that balance.

  *

  I was getting the hang of it. My new friends. Life.

  They were so weird, their clothes so loud, their music so eerie and alien, the very antithesis of Larissa’s and my undercover weirdness. But I was learning how to appreciate that loudness. Carrie and I still saw each other between classes, and occasionally alone outside of that. That week there was this famous comic artist speaking at the local community college, and we walked in with a bunch of college kids so the guards in the lobby wouldn’t check our I.D.s and we sat together in the back. During the question and answer period, I whispered to Carrie the question I’d wished I could ask but was too nervous to, and she surprised me by sticking her hand in the air and standing and asking it herself.

  Another time we went downtown after school. We sat in 30th Street Station and I sketched people coming up from the train platforms and handed the sketches to Carrie, who wrote little stories about them in the blank space. I thought of telling her my plans for running away to New York, but I couldn’t. It felt too private, still. Too mine.

  One day we were lying on the frozen grass outside school, alone together, and Carrie asked me, “What do you want?”

  “Out of our nascent friendship?”

  “Out of life.”

  “I don’t know. A good college, and then a job, I guess. Hopefully one that’s somehow connected to drawing.”

  “No, not that kind of stuff. I mean, what do you want? What would make you happy?”

  I thought. Hard prickles of grass pushed against my back, inside my sweater. I tried to really ask myself, to remember, when was the last time I knew for sure what I wanted?

  World peace. Naked girls who would do anything I asked them to, and more. A really big bowl of Cap’n Crunch that never got soggy.

  “This,” I said. “I mean, mostly this. I’d like to make the world a better place, I mean, for everyone else, and feed hungry people and cure AIDS and neurological disorders and stuff. But I think I’m doing okay. If I could just freeze time, and make right now last forever, and not push anything too far or never find out whether I’m going to be a success or a failure or have to deal with any of the problems that will eventually come up or grow up or get any younger, I think I’ll be pretty utterly fine.”

  “That’s great,” she said.

  “What about you?” I said.

  “I don’t know.” She lifted a piece of grass between the thumbs and forefingers of both hands, a single unbroken stalk that was longer than both her hands. Then she snapped it in half. Tiny flakes of frost flew in all directions.

  “What do you think?” I said. It was an old trick from my middle-school English teacher: You can say you don’t know something, but you can never say ‘I don’t think.’ I stole it often.

  “I think,” said Carrie, settling again comfortably into the grass, “that I live in an ideal and very delicate state between incredible happiness and incredible tension. And it’s hard to get the right balance, because when you’re too happy you never have to try for anything, and when there’s too much tension, it feels like you’ll never be happy again.”

  I didn’t know what that meant, or whether that was really what she was thinking, or if there was some subtext I should have been following but wasn’t. But I knew what she meant. And I knew that there was one thing that wasn’t completely right with my life. I mean, I knew exactly what was wrong, and I sort of knew exactly what I had to do to make it right. But once I did it, I didn’t know what would happen next.

  I had to tell Larissa I missed her.

  I looked away from Carrie. I knew she wanted me to reply with some sort of equally philosophically obtuse answer, but in the moment, I’d lost the ability to speak that language.

  *

  Once you name something, you take its power away. It worked on the Goblin King in Labyrinth, it worked on Mister Mxyzptlk in Superman, and it could work for me. The whole suspension thing had been building up strength in my mind, lurking in the shadows, growing from an elephant in the corner to a whole demonic monster in the corner. And my peregrinations to Wawa weren’t doing any favors to my paranoia. I’d consumed so much Mountain Dew in the past few days that I could swear my skin was turning day-glo green, and I hadn’t been able to sleep in weeks. (That was probably more a result of the caffeine than my paranoia, but I was taking no chances.)

  So on Thursday before Hebrew School, I decided to casually spill the beans.

  “Let’s get moving,” said my father. “Hebrew School Express, leaving in T-minus ten seconds.”

  “Actually,” I said, “that won’t be necessary.”

 
“What do you mean?” My mother rested her coffee on the kitchen counter and looked up. She had this supernatural sense when trouble was coming. Or maybe she always suspected that trouble was coming.

  “I, uh,” I said, “I’m not supposed to go to Hebrew School until next Tuesday.”

  “Was that on the calendar? Let me check the calendar....”

  “It’s not on the calendar.” I spoke slowly, with purpose. Owning every word as it left my mouth. “I was suspended. For getting into a fight. I’m suspended until next week.”

  “Oh.” A quiet, unexpected resignation. My father dropped his coat and sank into the sofa, then changing his mind and leaning forward. His hands cupping his knees. “Oh.”

  “Yeah,” I said. “Sorry about that.”

  “What?” said my mother. She abandoned her coffee, walking into the living room with the force and speed of a fire that needed to be put out. “Well, what happened? Whose fault was it? Did Dr. Tolsky know? When exactly did this happen, and what do we have to do? Do we have to come in and talk to the principal or—”

 
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