Lovesick, an adj., and other associated definitions
BY MEGAN WALTERS
My brother Caylen says that Turbie is a stupid name for a hedgehog. That it sounds too much like “tubby,” and everyone will make fat jokes, and he’ll get depressed and I’ll find him at the top of his cage one morning, hanging from a noose of piss-stained straw.
I shouldn’t believe him. Caylen’s the best liar I’ve ever met, and he uses the ability often. Just last week, a bush in our front yard mysteriously flattened itself the same night a bottle of dad’s vodka went missing from his liquor cubby inside our out of tune piano. Caylen swore it was some drunken man in a truck. Which, now that I think about it, is half-true. He just forgot to mention that the man was him, and the truck was our 1998 Volvo. I named my hedgehog Turbie.
Now Caylen’s tapping the tip of his pencil on the desk, like he always does when he’s annoyed, in this erratic pattern like chickchick-pause-chick-pause-chickchickchick, leaving a blob of black dots on the wood, how I used to draw fireworks.
“Jesus, Garrett!” Caylen drops his pencil with a final chick-thump-roll and swivels around in his chair to look at me, where I’m sitting on the top bunk with my journal in my hands. “Can’t you stop clicking your tongue for one fucking minute and go play outside like a normal little kid?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think I just am this way.”’
Dr. Wilkins says the tongue clicking is my way of “dealing with things,” except I’m not sure what “things” he’s talking about, or how tongue motion is supposed to “deal” with the things, but hey. Dad calls him the professional. I hardly ever notice I’m doing it anymore, until Caylen whines about it, jabs me in the ribs or throws a frozen chicken nugget at my head.
“It was a rhetorical question, dumbass.” Caylen slaps his hand down on the desk, crumples up the sheet of paper there with one smooth motion. “What I really meant is ‘pipe the fuck down before I make you, you little fucktard.’”
I never understood Caylen’s vocabulary. One second he’s using all these words I never heard used before, like “rhetorical,” and the next he’s all “shitty shit fuck goddamnit motherfucking asshole!” I talked about it once in one of my sessions with Doc, and he said it’s a defense mechanism, that Caylen needs the profanity as a barrier between himself and the rest of the world, to prove he’s tougher. I guess it makes sense, but sometimes I think it just might feel good, those words wrapped around his tongue, dribbling off his lips. Milky maybe, white or smooth or cold.
“Goddamnit, Garrett!” And he gets up, grabs his iPod, a set of headphones from the cup on his desk, slams the bedroom door shut behind him. Guess I clicked my tongue again. I click it a few more times, just because I can now, and I wonder if clicking is my profanity, if it feels the same way to me as “Goddamnit, Garrett!” does to Caylen. White or smooth or cold, maybe bubbles at the top, when you shake it a little. A foamy layer to all that pale depth.
I got my first journal for my fourth grade English class. It was navy blue with a silver spiral down the edge and 70 wide-ruled pages. We had to use them for our daily vocabulary words, the occasional writing prompt.
My teacher’s name was Ms. Kittler, a funny woman in her early sixties who wore bumblebee earrings everyday, heavy ones that made her lobes stretch down. There was a mole on the right side of her chin, and her breath smelled like gummy bears. She liked to lean close when she talked to me, cheek to cheek almost, so I could practically taste the gelatin in my mouth. She was rotund and bustled around the room a lot, smacking kids’ desks with a meter stick if they seemed to be dozing off.
“You can be mindless zombies when you’re dead,” she’d say in a singsong.
Most of the kids hated her, started calling her Adolf Kittler. Occasionally I’d be pressured into agreeing at recess, but mostly I liked her. I liked her a lot, actually. She always wrote nice comments at the bottom of my journal entries, in purple ink, saying I had an “extensive vocabulary” or “impressive syntax.” After a while she started giving me extra prompts, harder ones. I’d spend hours on them at home, slack off a bit in math to make up for it. Some days she’d keep me after school and give me cookies or hot cocoa, go over my words, talk books with me.
On the last day of school I cried. She hugged me close, arthritic hands gripping the small of my back, and told me I could come visit her classroom whenever I wanted, that I better want to visit a lot.
I tried to. I went to her room on the first day of fifth grade, but the room was lacking its usual colorful knickknacks, the frilly blanket draped over her desk chair. A younger man with dark hair was sitting in it, talking on the phone. He didn’t look up when I walked in. I asked Caylen about it later, and he said she got canned, something about a scandal, one of the high school boys she tutored after hours.
Since then I’ve had to get a new notebook. I chose purple this time. Mostly I write whatever I want, scribble down some words I mean to look up later. Maybe I’ll send it to her, Ms. Kittler, when the pages are all full.
–renovations, n. pl.
It’s a week before sixth grade starts now, and I haven’t seen my mother in three months. I still don’t quite know where she’s gone. Dad tries to explain it to me, but somehow it manages to slip past my eardrums like thin maple syrup, something about how she’s unstable, how she went off to a place with people that can fix her.
“How long has she been broken?” I asked Dad the morning I woke up to find her not there, a pancake recipe gone wrong, the batter stuck to the griddle and hard enough to break teeth.
“She’s not ‘broken’ exactly, Gare.”
He wore boxers beneath his coffee-stained bathrobe, rubbed at his eyebrows, ran his fingers down his forehead as if trying to iron out the crinkles. The only word I could think of to describe him was crumpled, a piece of paper folded over so many times it lost its texture, became like velvet. His eyes were origami rocks. Heavy and deep set. Usually they were pebbles.
“Just has problems.” He was using his you’re-only-ten-you-won’t-understand voice.
“How long has she had problems? What are her problems?”
“A while. It’s complicated, son.”
“Complicated how?” It wasn’t the first time I’d asked, but it was the first time Dad was tired enough to give an answer.
“She hears voices, okay?”
I wasn’t okay, and I still didn’t get what he meant. Doesn’t everyone hear voices? I was hearing Dad’s voice right then, and I’d heard Caylen’s earlier, and I’d unfortunately had to hear Mr. Dryden’s as he chattered on for thirty minutes about polygons. I think that even some deaf people can hear in their dreams. Joan of Arc heard God.
And actually, I think I might have too, that morning Mom left. Maybe not God’s voice. I mean, how am I supposed to know what that sounds like? But it was someone’s, someone nice.
Someone’s voice from up there, telling me to be quiet, that later when Caylen comes down the stairs, eye black, arm slinged, I shouldn’t ask what happened.
I’m staring at Turbie, curled up in the bottom of his cage. I swear he hasn’t moved for hours, not even to get a drink of water. He’s just laid there, quills relaxed and soft, moving up and down with his breath. I spot a box of stale Jujubes on Caylen’s desk and give it a shake, tipping a pinkish red one out and closing my fist around it. Biting my lip, I slide open the cage’s top and drop the little candy right above where Turbie’s sleeping.
It bounces off his back, rolls a few inches away. He doesn’t budge. I let out a breath, then a sigh. At least he looks cool.
Too disappointed to climb the ladder to my own bed, I throw myself down on Caylen’s. He’s got an array of papers coating the wall next to it, and sometimes I go through and glance them all. It hasn’t changed much since the last time I looked, the same assortment of magazine clippings, photographs, movie ticket stubs. There’s a new-ish cut-out of a vintage guitar he can’t afford, an article listing the principles of Unitarian universalism, the first one circled, the inherent worth and dignity of every person. There’s a train of snapshots from last year’s homecoming dance, him and five friends crammed into one photo booth, sweaty and grinning with teeth. There’s a sticky note with a reminder scrawled on it in his nearly illegible handwriting, “Meeting @ 7:30 Monday.” Probably to see Dr. Wilkins.
Caylen’s been going too, since Mom left, even more than me, but he keeps it on the down low. I almost spilled it to one of his friends once, and he stepped on my sneaker so hard it left a bruise for two weeks.
“I don’t get it, why can’t he know?” I asked later, pressing a bag of frozen peas to my foot. “Isn’t Jared your best friend?”
They’d met years ago, when they played for the same little league team. Neither of them even sort of liked baseball, but had somehow ended up there, bonded through their oversized orange jerseys and scratchy knee-high socks. Before they’d met, Caylen was a quiet kid. By the end of the season, Mom had nicknamed them her “inseparable benchwarmers.” I just vaguely remember going to the games, bouncing up and down on her knees from the bleachers. The game never really interested me; I’d just watch Caylen and Jared goofing off in the dugout, kicking up dirt with their cleats, seeing how far they could spit sunflower seeds, blowing bubbles with the shredded kind of chewing gum, the one that comes in fancy little pouches.
“Don’t you tell each other everything?”
“Well, yeah.” Caylen didn’t move his head to look at me. Just kept his eyes locked on the window, on the section of curb Jared pulled away from five minutes ago. “Usually, I guess.”
“You shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Lots of people go to therapy.” Finally turning his head, Caylen raised his eyebrows.
“I know. It’s not that,” he said, paused. I braced myself for a comeback. “Jared’s got enough to worry about. He doesn’t need my problems.”
I thought about it.
“But isn’t that the point? I mean, it’s what you do when you care about someone, right?” Caylen’s hand twitched. I remembered Mom telling me that once, late at night over ginger ale and stomach flu, and I wondered if he was thinking of her too. “You shoulder their troubles, and they shoulder yours.”
He looked out the window again, same spot on the curb. He cracked his knuckles, and the sound was louder than it should have been, somehow.
Tonight, dinner is quiet. These days, it usually is. There isn’t even the clink of fork against china anymore, just the soft brush of plastic knife on paper plate. Mom used to do the dishes, but now we just kill trees.
“Pass the corn,” Dad mutters. I hand it to him.
“Mom used to make jokes at the dinner table.” Caylen and Dad look up over their pre-cooked fish filets. It takes a moment for me to realize that I had spoken. “Remember?”
They both nod, take bites of mac and cheese as if synchronized.
I shouldn’t have said anything. They get all silent every time I mention what Mom used to be, what she is, wherever she is. I’m careful not to bring it up too much, tread through my sentences like I’m some kind of soldier, each phrase some kind of landmine.
But it’s true, what I said. She used to make lots of jokes, loved puns especially, had a laugh like a cartoon bird’s. She’d tell stories, too. I think that was her favorite, giving melody to words, turning anecdotes into lullabies. I always asked her to talk to me late at night, and she would, even when I was on the borders of sleep, could hardly see the tilt of her lips, the crook in her nose, with my blurred vision. She had the kind of voice you never wanted to stop listening to.
My favorites were the ones about her travels, most of them brief excursions from her days as a flight attendant, a few of them business meetings for the huge travel agency where she works now. I think it was the way she talked about it all that did it. The way her eyes seemed suddenly less bloodshot, the way her sunken cheekbones bubbled back into round, as if something made sense in her head again. Her voice would catch on certain words, whisper over others. Some sounded like fairytales; Brussels and Dublin and Barcelona and Johannesburg and Oslo, the cities blended together sometimes, like fingerpainting. She’d point them out to me on a map, let me trace from one place to the next.
She talked about Kemi the most, this smallish town in northern Finland. She’d lived there for a year in high school, part of an exchange program, gotten off the plane knowing approximately three Finnish phrases she’d picked up from a tourist guidebook, “Hello,” “I’m lost,” “I’m tired.” She has no regrets.
“You can’t learn anything new until you abandon what you already know,” she’d whisper. “You can’t figure out who you are until you lose expectations.”
The intensity behind her voice; I almost wished I were in Finland. Or that I were in Finland with her back when she was, so we could learn it all together, figure things out, watch Finnish television and sit in Finnish saunas and have Finnish snowball fights, visit Finnish igloos.
She tucked me in tight.
With her being gone so often, I wonder if Dad still loves her like he used to, or if something’s changed. I wonder if they’re going to get a divorce now. I wonder how they ended up together in the first place. I try to picture them in a candlelit restaurant, her in a silk dress and gold bangles, him in a white suit and bowtie. I come up empty; maybe they weren’t that kind of couple. I picture them in sweatpants, at a bowling alley, playing laser tag. I picture them at the top of a rollercoaster, mouths open pre-scream, clutching hands instead of safety bar. I try to picture them happy, every last guard down.
Dad pushes back his chair with a screech.
“I’ve gotta head out soon, boys,” he says, placing Caylen’s plate on top of his. “You done, Garrett? You hardly touched your food.”
“Yeah, I’m not very hun—”
“Whoa, wait. You leaving, Dad? You didn’t tell me you worked tonight.”
Dad squints his eyes, like what-is-it-to-you, then dumps all the plates in the garbage. “Yes, I’m covering a shift for Eileen. What’s it to you?”
“No, I can’t babysit tonight, Dad. It’s Jared’s birthday, remember?”
I sigh, take my unused napkin and start ripping it into strips. I’ve memorized the signs of these Dad-Caylen fights, have seen the steps before. They tend to start over one of Caylen’s lies, grow into some issue of disrespect or naivety or ignorance and then raised voices, slammed doors.
They’ve never been infrequent, these Dad-Caylen fights. My brother would argue with anything that breathes, I think. Lately, though, it’s like they’ve forgotten how to talk normal.
“No, I don’t remember.” Dad turns to the sink, runs his hands under the tap. “Maybe because I have better things to worry about than your little birthday parties, like work? You might want to try it out sometime.”
“Ah, c’mon, Dad.” Caylen throws his hands down on the table. “I watch Garrett all the fucking time. Can’t he stay by himself just this once?”
“Not with that language, young man.” Dad rips off a paper towel from the rack, wipes his hands, bunches it up and chucks it into the trashcan.
“Oh my God,” Caylen whines. “This is ridiculous.”
“This is ridiculousssss,” Dad imitates, grabbing his coat from the peg by the door. “Really, Caylen, you’ve got to be kidding. It’s one night of your life.” Swinging open the front door and slipping outside, he calls over his shoulder, “I think you’ll manage.”
He lets the wood slam into place behind him, the quake jostling the picture frame hanging above the stove. The leaves of our fake plant sway from the ceiling fan’s breeze. The sun is setting, giving our dull counters a layer of yellow light.
Caylen sits quietly. I look at the pieces of my napkin, now a small pile of squares on the white tabletop. A lot of conversations with my family tend to end like this these days; just quiet, the coolness of elbows on smooth wood. Our clock shaped like an apple ticks and tocks.
“You know, I can cover for you, if you want.”
Caylen lifts his head from where it was hanging, staring down at his socked feet.
I’m not sure why I said it. The words kinda slipped out like awkward vomit. Maybe I’m just tired, or maybe hungry, even though I don’t feel like I am. Maybe I’d say anything at this point if it could make somebody happy again.
“I really can,” I repeat.
“No offense, bro,” Caylen says, smirking a bit, “but you are a God-awful liar.”
I shrug. I can’t argue with that.
“Besides, I couldn’t risk you shoving a fork too far in the toaster or something while I’m gone. I don’t wanna deal with that shit right now.”
I can’t tell if he’s joking until he winks, punches me on the shoulder, lightly but still almost knocking me off the chair. He stands and finishes off his glass of water with a last chug.
“But,” Caylen says, and I feel my stomach drop, “this is gonna be a kick-ass party, and I’m not about to miss it. Get your shoes on, bud.”
–tremors, n. pl.
Once, last January after school, I came home to find the house was robbed. Or looked like it, anyways. The lights were off, and the door was half open, and a part of our front window was shattered, the glass forming a jagged hole like baby monster’s mouth. The tall-as-me lighthouse statue we kept right next to it was tipped over, had broken in the middle, splintered.
My backpack felt heavy. I slipped inside and dropped my lunchbox on the linoleum, the latch releasing and revealing the crust of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a few uneaten animal crackers. It looked like the home security commercials I always had to mute the television for. A couple dining room chairs were knocked over. Every cabinet was emptied with the dishware scattered throughout. Some sets were completely busted, the shards of bowls or plates neatly shaped into triangles, stars. Others were all in one piece. There was a pyramid made of cutlery in the corner.
I whispered this time. “Mom?”
Then I heard it, this distant but not too distant murmuring, like a cartoon bird’s. I don’t know why I followed it up the stairs, but I remember the mud on my rainboots. I remember the brown prints it left behind, how the stains never quite came out. I found her in the bathroom.
She was in there shaking, this little ball on the tile. Just shaking. This assortment of toiletries around her, this train of toothpaste by her foot. Her toes were curled up, painted peach, her skin red from pulling her muscles so taut. Her dark hair was down and framing her cheeks.
“Oh thank God,” were the first words out of her mouth when she saw me, got doe-like, got teary, make-up smudged on the bags beneath her eyes. “Thank God. They said they would take you.” She pulled me into her hard, buried her face in my knees. I couldn’t move. “They said I was too late. Too late, too late. Oh, thank God.” Just shaking.
She left after that, was gone about a month, and came back my mom. My mom with a color coded pill case. She kept it above the sink.
I hate getting in trouble almost as much as I hate spiders. I really hate spiders, so I don’t rebel all that often. This, though, this sneaking around with Caylen has got to be a step towards it.
It’s not like I have anything to be afraid of; Dad is working the graveyard shift from 9 pm to 5 am and we’ll be long home before then. He’ll never know. We even played a quick game of go fish before we left, so that if he asked I could easily respond, “We hung out, played a game,” without emptying my stomach.
Caylen doesn’t seem the least bit fazed, and I realized I’d forgotten that he does this kind of stuff all the time. He’s an expert by now, coasting down the road at easily 60 miles an hour, one hand on the wheel. I feel nauseous.
Before long we pull up to Jared’s, this yellow ranch house with white trim, not big but easily twice the size of ours, a potted cactus out front. It looks weird with all the normal lights off, a few strings of Christmas tree ones replacing them. The bass from the sound system carries all the way to the car, vibrating the little bluebird bobble head Mom likes to keep on the dashboard. I can see a strobe flashing in one window, and a few kids on the patio, laughing in a cloud of smoke.
“Okay,” Caylen says, adjusting his gray beanie in the rearview mirror. “I’ll be back in a little. In the meantime, just stay low. And try not to dork up the place. People like these can smell a dork a mile away.” I just swallow. He nudges me in the ribs. “I’m only kidding, okay? Thanks for this, Garrett.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say, distracted by one of the porch kids who’s put his shoes on his hands and is attempting to do a cartwheel. He does something more like a somersault and rolls down a few stairs, sending the rest of the porch kids into hysterics. “What am I supposed to do, though? Just sit here?”
“I don’t know. Do whatever you want as long as you stay in the car. And don’t talk to people. Or accept any substances, even if you know what it is, okay? Not even brownies.”
“Now you sound like dad.”
He sighs, says, “shut the fuck up,” rustles my hair on his way out of the car.
I still feel nauseous. Until now, in my entire ten years of life, I’d only disobeyed my dad once, and it killed our cat. It was three summers ago, when I’d been playing jacks after he had banned it, yelled at me for leaving the pieces all around the house; in the couch cushions, under the tables, inside desk drawers, dressers, sneakers. But I loved the game too much, and Dad was at work, and I knew where he kept stuff after taking it away, and I really meant to pick them up when I was done that day, really, with every bit of my heart and soul. Caylen distracted me is all, made a big deal about the ice-cream truck pulling around the corner, stole a few bucks from the cup on Dad’s desk so we could get something cold. I got carried away, went running out barefoot, came back later with popsicle in hand, and Clinton lay dead on the floor, a marble-sized lump in his skinny throat.
I didn’t cry, just stood over him in this dizzy state of shock, juice from my popsicle dripping onto his limp body, intertwining lime green with black fur, cold melting into lukewarm.
I can’t kill a bug anymore.
Caylen doesn’t lie to Mom. Or at least, I don’t think he does. At least not the straightforward way he does to Dad. Maybe it was this off-kilter honesty that got him in trouble so much. Maybe it was the funny pang in his voice when he fought back. I would wake up sometimes to hear them downstairs, words quiet but harsh. I couldn’t make them out. By the time I’d come down to the kitchen for a slice of toast, they’d barely be whispering, staring at each other over the bowl of plastic fruit on our kitchen table, their eyes a little glossy. Sometimes Mom would reach over and squeeze his hand before acting normal, pouring coffee, wondering about the weather. I still don’t know how much of this was caused by “voices,” just remember how unsettling it was, like the air particles in the house shifted somehow.
She never hit him, though. I know she never hit him, not until that last day, late, on the front lawn, when I was asleep. I heard the shouts. They never shouted. I thought I dreamt it.
I’ve talked about that day with Dr. Wilkins a lot, about how normal she’d seemed, or even better than normal.
She burst into our bedroom early that Saturday morning, first weekend of summer, and I mean early. I mean I could just barely see sunlight leaking around the blinds. She was beaming, ripples at the corners of her eyes.
“Up up up, you two!” She let the door swing open all the way, flounced over to Caylen’s desk and perched on the edge. “What do you think you’re doing still in here?”
“Sleeping.” The mattress squeaked as Caylen shifted beneath me, probably to face the wall, block out the light spilling in from the hallway. He wasn’t one for morning banter.
“Pshh, nope! Not anymore you aren’t. ” The excitement in her voice was tangible, bubbling out of her lips like soda pop. “We’re going on a road trip.”
“No, thanks,” Cay said.
“Huh?” I said.
Before my eyes had even begun to adjust to the light, Mom was scooping me out of the sheets, dumping me on the floor, where I was still so startled I almost fell over, goosebumps spreading across my bare arms. Turbie himself was just starting to fall asleep, trying to find the right nook in his cage.
“C’mon, Cay!” She jerked back his blankets, ruffled his hair a few times. “I don’t want to get a cup of ice-cold water, but I will. Don’t think I’m bigger than that.”
“Je. Sus. Christ.” Caylen dragged out each syllable before reluctantly sitting up. “What the hell, Mom?”
“Yes, I’m loving your energy,” she said. “That’s the spirit, right there!”
“The first day of summer. Really.” But his eyes were brightening. “You’ve gotta be shitting me.”
So the three of us piled into the car with a bag of CDs, a stack of books, and whatever we could find in the kitchen that even sort of resembled snack food, so basically a few stems of broccoli, a half-eaten jar of marshmallow fluff, some dried cranberries, and three small cans of tuna fish. We were, for the most part, used to the haphazardness. Neither of us even bothered to ask Mom where we were going, just rolled down the windows and turned up the music and watched the sun get higher in the sky.
Four hours in, about halfway, we stopped for bagels and energy drinks at a gas station, bought them from this funny clerk who chewed toothpicks and smelled of cow. The bagels weren’t much more appealing than the clerk. Caylen dared me to spread marshmallow fluff on it instead of cream cheese, bits of broccoli too. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but I was still a second from upchucking all over the pavement. I don’t think I’d ever seen the two of them laugh so hard, although Mom of course had the courtesy of pretending to be concerned first. “Your face,” they’d said. “If only you could have seen your face.”
We got back in the car, practically buzzing, practically humming out loud, our bones. A few hours of driving later Mom had us put on makeshift blindfolds, made out of ripped up plastic bag. It wasn’t quite thick enough; I could still see shadows dancing behind the white, but it did the job so that when she finally pulled over, helped us out of the car, we were stunned.
“Isn’t it so honest?”
Caylen and I just stood there.
“This morning I realized I’d never seen the Atlantic,” she said. “Just flown over it, again and again. Never actually been there, been there.”
We still just stood. Looking out over the railing at all that blue and not being able to grasp it, not being able to wrap our minds around the possibility of it, all the blue stretching all that way. I’d never seen anything so open.
“It’s different up close.”
We still just stood there. I think we’d both been expecting to end up someplace ridiculous, like a fish hatchery, or a donut factory or the world’s biggest sock emporium. Knowing Mom, someplace ridiculous.
“Although, I suppose all things are, when you get down to it, aren’t they? Different up close. Nothing tells its best secrets first.” Her voice itself was getting distant, airy, like the wind was carrying it out to the middle of all the blue and letting it float there. It should have been our first sign that something was off. “Where would the fun be in that?”
We stood for a few minutes longer.
“So can we swim in it?” I asked. And the three of us were hopping the guardrail, racing down the pathless hill, skipping over tiny shrubs and larger rocks until we finally tumbled out by the shoreline. I’m not sure how long exactly we spent out there, treading and feeling weightless and shooting water into the air with our mouths, but I know we were there for sunset. Still out there with the currents when the sky turned orange, and pink, and purple. Still out there when the sky turned black. Finally we made our way, panting, onto the sand, collapsed onto it, shivering, huddling close to make up for not bringing any change of clothing.
“You have no idea how much I love you,” Mom whispered, kissed us both on the heads.
Somewhere far away there were fireworks. We could see them out of the corner of our eyes, to the right. Bang and they were there, fizzle and they weren’t, bang fizzle bang fizzle until the sky settled on an insistent black, a few clouds of smoke the only sign it’d ever been different.
“How do you know, Mom?” I asked as we laid there, she in the middle, her arms draped around both our shoulders.
“Know what, sweetheart?”
“That you love someone,” Caylen said, before I could. Even in the darkness his face grew red, his voice grew softer. “That you love us.”
“Because,” she said, simply as if we’d requested a glass of water, a cookie, “I see you. I mean I really see you. Like straight down in there. Past what you do, past what you say.” She rests one finger on each of our chests, above where the heart’s supposed to be. “Past everything. I see you. And I still want to hold you close like this.”
I fell dead asleep on the car ride home. Didn’t wake up for their fight, didn’t hear anything except while half-unconscious, just ended up in bed somehow, got up the next morning to some Dad in the kitchen, some Caylen battered and quiet. The rock hard pancakes I’d tried to claw off the griddle long after the both of them had gone upstairs.
For two hours and twenty minutes I watch the car’s digital clock flick from 10:02 to 10:03 to 10:04, my eyes getting steadily cloudier, my vision all dotted and funny. I try to remember if I’d fed Turbie, worry that he’s getting hungry. At 12:20 the party seems to be fizzling out. The porch kids went inside a long time ago, not sure where after that. A couple is laying in the front yard, pointing out stars to each other and laughing at nothing. Caylen had told me to wait, but he also told me he wouldn’t be long and it’s a hot August and the car is stuffy despite the open windows.
I wander up the porch steps, shards of beer bottle glass crunching beneath my sneakers, slip in through the already open front door. Music is still pumping, but at a lower volume, and I don’t see anyone dancing. There’s a group of kids clustered around a monopoly board to my right, paper money strewn over the carpet, one of the girls trying to throw a pawn into someone’s drink, giggling a little too hard when she misses. None of them look like him.
I manage to slip past unnoticed, make it through to the kitchen, slip out into the backyard where there’s a dying bonfire and a cooler full of pop and a bag of s’mores supplies, and Caylen, on my right. There is something delicate in the flicker of his eyes. I shuffle backwards a step, peek around the sliding glass door. His back is up against the tall wooden fence. His gaze is downcast, lips turned up in a toothless smile. He is near a pine tree laced with white light. It glosses his skin.
He is holding hands with someone. The hands are dark. The shoulders are wide. The hair is short. There is a tattoo in Arabic on the back of the neck. He is touching noses with Jared. They are so close their breath must be mixing together. They are so close I bet they can hear each other’s lungs working. Doesn’t that bother them? Isn’t that weird, to be so close to somebody? Their lips brush. Their lips brush again.
“You know, eighteen’s pretty old,” Caylen says. His lips twitch. His chest is lifting a little bit more so than it was a minute ago. Isn’t that annoying? Having to work so hard to breathe?
“Nah, it’s really not. Seventeen though, I don’t know. That seems a bit young.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
My head is doing circles, rubberbanding back and forth. What happened to baseball? Where is their bubblegum, their bench? How did they get here from there? They are so close now I almost can’t tell them apart. They are so close now I can’t imagine them being apart. They are so happy now I can almost feel it, buzzing practically, humming practically, in my bones. They are holding each other like mom held me when she thought it might be too late, too late, too late. They are holding each other like static swear words, like broken barriers. They are close. Lip brush.
I click my tongue, and—for the first time—the sound of it startles me a little.
I panic, think Caylen’s going to see me, yell at me for leaving the car, but he’s busy. He doesn’t open his eyes.
I turn and walk back through the kitchen, go past the monopoly game, which has now been abandoned and on which now a dog is laying. I go past the stargazing couple that is now just eye-gazing but still laughing at nothing, past the bloodstain that hand-standing porch kid left, past a pile of crunched up glass, and I sit in the car. I pretend to fall asleep.
When we get home, the house is dark. Caylen doesn’t bother to turn on any of the lights, just carries me up the front steps, up the inside steps, dispenses me on the top bunk, tugs off my sneakers, adjusts the blanket. I listen to him sniffling in the blackness, hear him shifting in the blackness, his t-shirt and jeans falling to carpet. His breath uneven, suddenly steady. I listen.
I think about the Caylen that morning who called me a fucktard. I think about the one wrapped up in Jared’s arms. I think about that house, with the lights and the music and the smell of sweaty palms gripping bottles. I think about the many layers of our skins. I think about the ocean. I wish they’d fit together somehow.
I don’t sleep. I stare at the glow and the dark stars on the ceiling. I hear Turbie occasionally on his wheel. I close my eyes. I stare again, close again. I doze off. At some point, Dad nudges the door open, gives a tired smile, a nod. In the sliver of light spilling in from the hallway I can see Turbie, curled up at the bottom of his cage, hugging the pink Jujube to his soft chest.