PHOTO: Laura Kranz
“What are you doing after rehearsal?”
I ask, then jam my tongue between my teeth. She doesn’t study her Docs or check her smirking bando friends. She doesn’t smile or frown. She watches my eyes. I’m staring into two of those blue runway lights. She’s stopped on the first step of the music room so she has to tilt her head down. Not how I planned it. One sarcastic comment would cover my butt, free her to laugh off my question, and guarantee I’d never ask again. I bite my tongue harder.
“Guinevere, come on!”
“Go ahead, I’ll be a minute,” she tells Mandy and Therese without looking up. I’m ignoring the audience. Trying to. Their giggles make the waiting torture instead of terror. Everyone else has gone. I feel them hesitate.
Why won’t they leave?
Finally, she says, “We’re done at six o’clock, so I’m just going home to have dinner with my family,” like she’s answering a rhetorical question. I picture a mahogany table with green cloth napkins, crystal and china, my cousins’ house on holidays back when we still visited them. My face burns as if from flames jumping out of my collar. I could still quit this conversation and walk away, singed but intact.
“What are you up to after that?” Or I could splash on a little gasoline.
Then she smiles. Amused, but also…? The gigglers can’t see it. I loosen the grip on my tongue.
“I’m doing my homework, of course,” she says, shaking her head, making her white-blonde ponytail brush against her left cheek. But still she watches me. What else can I ask, “after homework?” Why not just “want to go parking?”
“Oh, sure, well maybe I could call y—”
“Would you like to come over for dinner?”
I want to freeze my life here, her invitation in the air I just inhaled, before I have to consider meeting her parents or dealing with mine, before I have to form any more words with my now-bleeding tongue. I would also enjoy calling her friends over to hear me accept, but gloating might not make the impression I’m after.
“That sounds good. Sure.” Ask her a stupid question now or risk humiliating myself? “Is it…I mean, is your family more, um…”
“Is my family more what?”
“Are they more formal?”
She smiles again, then laughs like tiny wind chimes. I can stand to have her laugh at me now. She can laugh at me all night.
“Than what? No, not really. A coat and tie will do,” she waits to see if I bite. “I’ll be home by six fifteen. We eat at six thirty. Don’t be late.” She laughs again—why?—then goes up the stairs. Her friends have disappeared. Just as she reaches the doorway, she looks back.
“Thanks for asking, Paxton,” she says. “Don’t forget to move.”
She closes the door.
I sprint down the hall, across the gym, and through the emergency exit. No alarm sounds, of course.
“YES!” I scream at the sky.
“YES!” I shout at the cherry Thunderbird parked just outside the door. Jeff has reclined all the way back in the driver’s seat and cranked Def Leppard. He still jumps. “YES! YES! YES!”
“You’re bullshitting me,” he says as I slide in.
“Yeah, you’re right,” I pant. “She totally shredded me, but I’m wearing my happy face to spare you. She invited me for dinner!”
“No, she did not. You’re—” He jerks his monogrammed stick into first and the tires shoot gravel. “She just broke up with Chuck last week. You’re going to her house? When? Why?” he demands.
“Tonight, Buddy. Tonight. Because I asked her out,” I say. We cut in front of a white pickup. It comes within six inches, but Jeff’s ignoring traffic, waiting for a better answer. “I have no idea why she invited me. But she did. And Chuck was three months ago.”
I pull on my seatbelt.
“What the hell are you doing?” Jeff demands.
“You just buckled in.”
“So? If I could ground your car to protect us from lightning, I would.” Jeff peers under his shade at the blue sky. “In fact, I better drive. No, I’ll walk. Could you pull over?”
“Jack-O, I’ll let you out now,” he says, rolling down my window and grabbing my shoulder while topping forty in the school zone.
“Hey, don’t get pulled over, I can’t be calling her from the courthouse.” My voice may have registered the slightest note of sincerity. Or panic.
Jeff clenches his teeth at me, his version of a smile.
“You sonofabitch. She really asked you over, didn’t she?”
“Yeah, Man, she did. Thanks for waiting.”
“You kidding? That banshee scream alone was worth every second.”
The bass line of “Photograph,” Jeff’s favorite song, thuds against the windows. He turns it up the last notch, which he has labeled “11.”
Worth every second? We’re talking many seconds. I saw Guinevere Kinton on the first day of our freshman year. All the kids in the class of ’87—two hundred twenty-eight 13- and 14-year-olds—were alphabetically cattle-driven so they could weigh, measure and poke at us. That morning, they had enthused about promoting our “class unity.” Standing in line for an hour and twenty minutes promoted several drug contacts, two fights after school (and probably ten more I didn’t hear about), and a contest to see who could harsh most creatively on our new school.
I lost by default.
“Hi. I’m Guinevere. We just moved here.”
“Hi, I’m Paxton.”
“Really? That’s as funky as mine. What’s up with your folks?”
“I can’t even begin to answer that, but I’m guessing you mean the name?” She nodded. I was straining not to hyperventilate while making casual conversation. This girl was gorgeous and talking to me. Both. “My Mother’s grandfather’s last name was Paxton. She doesn’t even know who he was, but she thought the name sounded old-school respectable. Also, my father hated it.”
“Huh,” she said, like I had introduced a new concept. I held my throat to keep from going geek ballistic: What? What’d I say? Did that sound weird? Your parents don’t hate each other? “My folks are intellectuals, Sixties kids. When they were young and falling in love, they believed in the whole Camelot myth. I’m a girl, which rules out ‘Arthur.’ So, even though Guinevere has certain character flaws, they decided the name’s ‘just sooo beautiful,’” she did a nasal imitation. “Guess it’s better than Moonbeam or Southwind.”
“They both chose it?” My dad hated Camelot. The musical and the Kennedys.
“Yeah. You know, hippies. They’re still in love. Old and boring and sold out. But in love.”
“That’s amazing,” I said, because to me it was.
“You’re kind of bizarre,” she said. After that, we stopped and talked whenever we saw each other. I would replay her words while going to sleep, imagining she was thinking of me, too. Maybe “bizarre” meant “hot.” Maybe “imagining” meant “pretending.”
Jeff and I became friends our sophomore year, also through random circumstances. We both got the same stupid punishment—picking up the milk cartons that kids took outside for lunch break (against the rules) and threw all over the lawn. We exchanged crucial info first.
“You with anyone?” I asked.
“Nah. Broke up with a girl about a month ago. Now I want her back, but she’s seeing some loser junior.”
“She’s a sophomore?” I tried to sound neutral while doing lunges for garbage.
“Yup. Vickie Morley. Know her?”
“I don’t think so.” I did. She whined like a broken teakettle. “Why’d you break up?”
“‘Cause I’m an idiot, Dickhead. You got a girlfriend?”
“Uh-uh. Working on it.”
“What’s her name?” He asked, stomping cartons with his combat boots.
“Guinevere Kinton,” I said, forcing myself to look up from the trash.
“That’s like saying you’re after Jodie Foster. Isn’t she like a foot taller than you? I’m talking about somebody you’ve got a rat’s ass chance of ever talking to. ”
“We do talk. And I liked her before she got popular. I’m waiting for the right time.” She had just broken up with a senior.
“Yeah, but ‘talking’ means she sees you as a friend, which means you’re screwed. Besides, she was always going to be popular, from the first day in the nursery she probably had those…” He started to motion curves with his hands. I ground my teeth together, which I can do loudly enough to interrupt a teacher from the back row. “Goddamn, does that hurt? You’re serious, aren’t you?” Suddenly he straightened up and dropped his trash bag. “I’m Jeff Albermathy.” I wiped my hand on my jeans before I shook, which helped me feel the milk on his.
“I’m Paxton. Paxton Kingsley.”
“‘Paxton?’ You go by ‘Pax, right?’ Sounds more like a name. That what people call you?”
“Nobody does. I hate how it sounds.”
“Cool. Pax, I always side with underdogs. It’s like my Uncle Pete says, ‘The underdog’s the only dog worth fighting for.’ If I can ever do anything to help you win Fair Guinevere, I’m at your disposal. Sorry for the trashy pun.”
Jeff has kept his word. So you see, everything in my life has revolved around her.
No, not everything. Only the good things.
My family lives on the opposite side of town, in every sense, from Guinevere Kinton. Jeff lets me borrow his car. I puzzle the logistics over and over. Arrive in a jacked up, gleaming red monster with LVMCHN plates, or park a few blocks away and appear to have jogged twelve miles. Will they ask? Too many movie heroes unravel from simple lies. What if her parents insist on driving me home? Then I would have to run all the way back to get the T-bird. I choose option three: park three houses down, pretend I got confused about the address, admit to driving it if pressed, and yes, acknowledge that I do not own a car. Would I gain or lose points with Guinevere’s parents? One of ten thousand things I can only guess about them.
But then, how much do I know about Guinevere? Only every detail from every conversation we’ve had in four years of being “just friends.” Only that we will marry and have three children and live somewhere up the Northern California coast, away from small-town Midwest everyone-in-your-business claustrophobia. And from my family.
And that with her, God finally mastered his craft.
I ring the doorbell carefully, not too long or short. I have to start this right.
The door opens inward. A man evaluates me, his head above the doorframe. I glance down to verify that I am standing a step lower. I’m not.
“Hello,” says the giant, “you must be Paxton. We are glad you could join us for dinner tonight. Please come in.”
Now, I have to explain. I am not short. Yes, I protesteth too much, but I’m not short. I am five feet eight inches tall in the right shoes. What does it matter how tall a person stands barefoot? Well, there’s going swimming. I avoid making first impressions at pools.
I can’t avoid making this first impression with the father of the girl I’ve loved every single day of my high school life (which is to say, about one third of my conscious memory and the only part that matters). He’s looking straight down at the top of my head. Gene Simmons’ boots wouldn’t help me stand on equal footing with this man.
“I’m Noel Kinton, Guinevere’s father.” He extends his hand. I try for a strong grip but somehow get only two and a half fingers in his palm. I despise those misfire handshakes and I’ve just had one with the man I’m trying to impress. There should be a do-over rule.
“Paxton Kingsley. Nice to meet you.” Is “nice” the word?
“Dinner will be ready in about three minutes, Paxton. Thank you for being punctual. I think Guin’s up in her room,” he raises his chin to indicate the stairway next to him, where I am not invited to go. “Would you like to meet my wife?”
“Yes, I would like to meet her,” I say. My formal sucks.
While he leads me down a long, photohistory hallway, I check Noel Kinton’s short black hair and almost brown skin on his long neck. Italian? A stepfather? One of those couples from the Sixties?
Guinevere goes by Kinton, too, but that proves nothing. She is five-nine, and had held an inch-and-a-half lead on me since our freshman year. I finally gained half an inch, but if she has Noel’s genes, she might still reach six feet. But they look unrelated. She has ivory skin so sensitive she wears big floppy hats from May until September. She told me (summer after sophomore year, and yes, at the pool) that her scalp sunburns, right through her hair, at the same rate that her face does.
“I might as well be bald,” she laughed. I seized my chance.
“No, you should keep your hair,” I said. With such courage and eloquence, you see why it took me until senior year to ask her out.
I had seen Mrs. Kinton plenty of times. She attends all of her daughter’s performances: band concerts, football and basketball games for pep band, solo recitals, even school musicals to hear the orchestra. Guinevere sits first-chair flute, and somehow also learned to play sax—which she does for jazz band—better than anyone else at school. She dabbles with five or six other instruments, just for fun. One rumor claims that Mrs. Kinton has her Ph.D. in music.
Mrs. Kinton has forgotten to age; she makes the other girls want to hide their mothers. I’ve heard more rumors about her: beauty pageant queen, model, pin-up girl. Stupid and groundless, but they show how the boys fantasize not only about the daughter.
“Gretchen, this is Guin’s friend, Paxton Kingsley.” Friend. What did you expect her to tell them? Do you think you’re anything else?
“Hello, Paxton,” she says, looking back at me over her shoulder. I’d seen Marlene Dietrich give just that look in some old movie my parents slept through. Gretchen Kinton definitely shared her blue eyes and fair skin with her daughter. Even her hair looks exactly like Guinevere’s, including ponytail, except that Mrs. Kinton’s stops just below the shoulders while Guin’s rests on the small of her back.
“Hello, Mrs. Kinton. I’m pleased to meet you.”
“I’d prefer Gretchen,” she smiles at me. “Haven’t I seen you at some of Guin’s…oh, you play on the basketball team, don’t you.”
Mr. Kinton, who has not requested first-name familiarity, raises his eyebrows without changing expression. His face seems to reveal only hints of emotion.
“‘Play’ in the loosest sense of the word,” I tell them. “I am permitted to wear a uniform and stand during time-outs.” They laugh in harmony, his rumbly string bass with her surprisingly nasal clarinet. Guinevere has a prettier laugh. And she’s right about them; they’re still pretty disgusting together. My parents would be arguing by now.
“Paxton’s good, but his coach is a jerk,” Guinevere declares. She sweeps past me before I can turn around, though I can smell her hair. I see now that she is taller than her mother and far more beautiful. It’s not even close. Sometimes, when I’m not with her, I think I must be exaggerating…and then I see her again.
“What does everyone want to drink?” Gretchen asks, as if the four of us always gather in this kitchen. “I’m having wine. Paxton, I know you probably won’t because of the team, but you may if you’d like. Would you prefer juice?” She holds up a tall, yellow-green water glass.
I am here, standing in Guinevere’s kitchen, about to eat dinner with her family. My whole body spasms. No one else seems to notice.
“So, how long have you two been friends?” Gretchen Kinton asks while we pass the chicken around their huge kitchen table. It’s bigger than our kitchen, though smaller than their dining room table. It’s “Kung Pow chicken,” I learn, and figure out not “tie” but Thai food, as in, from Thailand. I’d never known anyone in our town to make food like this.
“Um, I don’t know, since sometime our freshman year, Paxton? We knew each other then, right?”
“I can’t remember exactly,” I lie. “We’ve had a lot of classes together.”
“Are you a musician, too?” Mr. Kinton asks me. He seems to measure every word. I don’t mean he sounds fake, just careful. Guin said he’s a lawyer. At dinner, too, apparently.
“No, I’m afraid not,” I confess. “I took piano for a year or so when I was in grade school, but…” An image of flame arises, surging and spreading, lacquer burning clean as crude oil, Dad watching while the piano he just chopped to splinters gets cremated in our living room fireplace; it could never translate into this world of coordinated dishware. “But those NBA coaches started calling, and there was the pressure from the college scouts. I just lost my focus.”
Everyone laughs with me. Or at me. I almost don’t care which.
“Yes, what about that? Guin says you play well, but that your coach—how did you put it, Dear?” Mrs. Kinton asks.
“Loser. Capital ‘L,’” Guin makes the sign on her forehead.
“How has the team done this year?”
“Eleven and two. We’re leading the conference.” We had lost at Quincy—our school’s most detested rival—the Friday before, but I don’t mention that because I don’t want to sound pathetic, like I’m happy or something. She comes to the home games. Do they really not follow the team?
“Well, in my experience, Guinevere expresses her opinions assertively, but she rarely flatters,” Mr. Kinton says. “A winning record neither proves nor disproves that you should be playing more. Are you a good player?”
Okay, I need a full time-out here. Asking too much of me: Guinevere looking for me to validate her statement; Mr. and Mrs. Kinton waiting, wealthy, attractive, excruciatingly successful adults (how were these people ever hippies?) whom I’m trying to impress with my improv court manners. What is Kung Pow chicken? Why are there two forks when there’s no salad? She offered me a glass of wine with dinner, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Was that a test? Now I’m supposed to explain—graciously—how my basketball coach has emasculated me these past four years? I’ve ranted at Jeff a thousand times, screamed it to the Grocery Warehouse boxes at three a.m. Heavy on rage, light on rational argument. How do I explain givens?
“I’m a better player than either of the guards who start, but the coach hates me because I don’t brown-nose and I talked back to him once, four years ago, when he tried to make me look like a juvenile delinquent. In the movies, when you stand up for yourself you get respect. In high school, you get castrated. I’ve wanted to play varsity basketball since I was three years old and everyone knows he’s just using our team to get a better job. I considered suicide. Fortunately, I’m obsessed with your daughter, and my hope of her giving up dating jerks and falling in love with me keeps me clinging to life. Oh, did I mention my father coached basketball here in Mainstreet, USA before I was born, got fired, and was counting on me to vindicate him?” I say none of that. I sit, dumb and impotent. Guinevere gives me the urgent eyes.
“I work hard. I think I deserve to play more than I do.” Which is nil, I don’t add. “It sounds like bragging to say, ‘Yes, I’m good,’ doesn’t it?” I shrug an apology at the three of them—Mr. and Mrs. Kinton because I had boasted, Guinevere because I had not.
Noel Kinton’s eyebrows lower momentarily. Oh my God, I criticized his question.
“No, Paxton, in my opinion it does not. If you play well and tell me you play poorly, that ‘sounds like’ speaking an untruth. Stating belief in oneself, though often mistaken for self-adulation, in fact requires an increasingly rare degree of honesty.”
I replay his words. Somehow, he corrected and congratulated me at the same time.
“Yeah, that way doing the right things—like being humble and being truthful—can work together, and don’t have to, like, cancel each other out. I mean, you don’t have to give up one to do the other.”
Guinevere rolls her eyes. My chest fills with lead. Idiot! You’re impressing the wrong family member! This is just common lecturing for her, as much a fixture as napkin rings and candlesticks, and I’m excited about it.
“You’re an idealist, aren’t you, Paxton?” Gretchen Kinton asks, but her tone and expression are not asking. If Guinevere ever spoke to me or looked at me like that…I might forget basketball existed.
“Mom, you’re embarrassing him,” Guinevere says, sounding embarrassed. She might even be blushing. She just might.
At that, Gretchen smiles at me, an entirely different smile, a victorious smile, a conspiratorial smile. My body tremors again.
They’re cheering for me!
I may burst with this revelation, and half consider excusing myself to call Jeff and tell him that Guin’s parents are backing the nice guy. I mean, maybe I’m jumping to conclusions, but the bride’s parents pay for the wedding, right?
Against eighteen years’ evidence in my home, against the unrelenting humiliation of the past four, almost against my will, I want to believe that God exists and cares enough to have a hand in this.
Guinevere walks me out to Jeff’s car afterward.
“Thanks for coming, Paxton. You made dinner much more interesting than usual.”
“Anytime,” I say, too earnestly. My cool sucks, too.
“I’m glad you like my parents so much.” We walk down the smooth sidewalk. Every neighbor has edged their lawn on both sides. A little snow would cover them, but we’ve gotten none.
“Why’d you park so far down?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean, ‘what do I mean?’ You know where I live. Why did you park your car here?” We’ve reached the car. I’ve never been to her house before, but I don’t argue the point, because of course I know where she lives.
“It’s not my car. It’s Jeff Albermathy’s.”
“Really?” she gives me the sideways head tilt universally recognized as “duh.”
“Okay, you asked. Since I didn’t know your parents, I wasn’t sure how they would feel about…” I turn to the gleaming red hood where the blower Jeff installed protrudes like a dragon.
“You thought they would mistake you for a grease monkey, like your friend! I can’t wait to tell him! And them! ‘Like being humble and being truthful.’” She mimics.
Kiss her. The thought slaps me like a cold washcloth. Four hours earlier, that would have been laughable. And impossible. But, walking back to “my” car—duh—after eating dinner with her family at her invitation: boys do kiss girls under these circumstances.
Not that I’m about to kiss Guinevere Kinton. But I’m thinking this in real life, not fantasy. That must mean I’m getting closer.
All this swims through my brain while she mocks me for my crush on her parents and rejection of Jeff’s values.
“I have late rehearsal tomorrow, but I think they’re free, if you’d like to see them again.”
“Guinevere, what’s going on here?” my tongue says on its own. Damn you—that’s why you get bit!
Her smile sticks, then withers. After she wipes all emotion from her face, she looks more like her dad than her mom. I will not question the bloodline again.
“I haven’t figured it out, so you probably don’t want to ask yet,” she says.
I watch the sunset. It looks cleaner here than from my house.
“You haven’t dated that much, have you, Paxton?” She knows the answer; our school is too small for anyone not to.
“Not that much, no.” Three school dances with three different girls in four years. Whatever might qualify for “that much,” this doesn’t.
“Because when you ask a girl what she’s doing and she tells you she’s having supper with her family then waits silently, that means she’s waiting for a better offer. If she tells you ‘I have to wash my hair and paint my pet alligator’s toenails, so don’t call,’ that means she’s busy. You could have invited me over.” She locks eyes like we’re arm wrestling.
“My, um, my house isn’t really…” my breath comes out sounding sick. Which makes sense, because that thought just made me want to vomit.
“Okay,” she says, touching her fingertips to my wrist to show that it is. She just touched me. “Well, since the hot rod is available to you, we could also go out other places.”
“On a school night? But I wasn’t sure how your parents…”
“Are you sweet, or just a dweeb?” she asks. Then she walks away. I wait for her to look back. She goes into her house.
“I’m a freak trying to function in the outside world,” I tell the space where she stood
While driving me back home, Jeff won’t bear my silence.
“Hey, Jerk-off, you can’t keep this to yourself. You at least owe me the story as rental for the wheels. Unless you intended to pay cash.”
I try to say something cutting to make him laugh and divert him. Except I can’t speak. I physically cannot make words.
“Jesus Christ, Pax, did she spit on you? Throw you out?”
“No, Man, she didn’t. I think it went okay, and…it’s just…,” I sigh.
“I’ll tell you something, I hope I never get it as bad as you.”
He lasts a few minutes more before he asks, “What are her parents like?”
I had almost forgotten them. That sounds stupid, since they look like my best hope, but see it from my side: four years I’ve been playing her Cyrano. I know I’m a nice guy and I know where that means I’ll finish, but it’s too late for a personality-lift. Sweet irony, that their support may screw me.
“They’re tall. And they’re really smart. All their stuff matches. You’ve seen her mom.”
“Omigod, yeah, she’s s–”
“Don’t even start that right now. Seriously.”
“Yeah, sorry. So what, did they hate you?”
“No. They didn’t hate me. They acted like they liked me.”
“So what’s the…Oh. Does she like her parents?”
“I don’t know. Does anyone? I mean, they’re like the cover story for Got Our Act Together magazine. He’s an engineer and a lawyer, he’s like six-six. You know about her. They listen when you talk. What’s she got to fight against but being perfect?”
“So what, do I try to offend them? I thought maybe she was tired of—”
“Hey, Pax?” Jeff interrupts in a tone that yanks me out of my fog. He has pulled into my driveway. I turn toward him while I reach for the handle.
“Oh. Man, thanks for everything, all right? I—”
“Pax, look.” He’s staring. Ordinarily, I’m alert within a square mile of my house. This is why: the front shades are drawn, but shaking; we can hear muffled shouting; something thumps off a front windowpane; it’s as if we tuned in my parents’ station.
“You know I was at the hospital. I asked them to hold calls so she could sleep. Stop it! How is this going to help?”
“Oh, really! Like what you’re doing helps? Why even bother coming back? You–”
“Jeff, I’ve got to crash with you tonight,” I say loudly enough to drown them out. “I can’t sort this out in there.”
Jeff nods, but sits there fixated on his tachometer.
“What you gonna wear?” he asks. Jeff outweighs me by fifty pounds. He’s also a couple of inches taller, if six is a couple.
“These aren’t that dirty,” I answer, nodding at my gray oxford and Lee’s. “I’ll just air them out tonight.”
“She’ll notice.” He’s right, and I don’t want her to. But that has nothing to do with why he hasn’t pulled out of the driveway. We both know I could do laundry at his house.
“You don’t want me to come, do you?” I ask as calmly as I can. A buzzing whine sneaks into my last two words. Jeff ignores it.
“You know why. Do you think he’d do it again?”
“It” is come to Jeff’s.
“I apologize for disturbing you, Mr. Albermathy,” I heard Dad say as I listened from behind Jeff’s bedroom door. “I’ve been worried about my son. He must’ve forgotten to let his mother and I know where he planned to stay tonight. I guess he had better come on home now.”
“Okay, I’ll get him,” Jeff’s Dad replied. I met him in the hallway to spare him the explanation. He gave me The Look. Adults have given me The Look in these situations since I was four. I know what it means. Problem is, with The Look plus a quarter I still can’t buy anything.
When we got home, I found that Mom had gone to stay overnight with Grandma. Grandma is dying of cancer. She has been for years. Dad didn’t have anybody to tell things to, so he tipped over the refrigerator. He didn’t have anybody to clean it up, so he came and got me. Milk was still seeping across the kitchen tile and down the basement stairs. I failed to clean it up well enough, though, so we had a talk about responsibility—coming home on time and mopping carefully—until four a.m. From where I sat listening, I could see the dusty top of the fridge forming a right angle with the kitchen floor.
I’m sure Mr. Albermathy suggested to Jeff that “they not get in the middle.” Most people who get anywhere near the furthest edges of my family pull back so they don’t get in the middle.
“Hard to say,” I answer, though really it’s a rhetorical question. “They may do this all night. They may not notice I’m gone. Or she might leave. That’s a big part of the fun, not knowing.” I could push Jeff harder—I can’t hear them shouting anymore, which could mean anything—but I’ve just borrowed his car, and needing help all the time gets old. Everything about this gets old. I thud my fist against Jeff’s shoulder bone a little harder than necessary. “It’s cool. You’ve done plenty. I’ll deal.”
I walk into the dark toward the door.
“Good luck,” I hear Jeff call.
Right. Best night of my life and I come home to this. If there were a God…
I go directly in because sneaking draws fire. Mom and Dad are sitting on the couch. Not touching. Not looking at each other. Not looking at me. They are crying.
I have never seen my father cry before. His chest and stomach jerk out like the kid I saw having a seizure at Kroger’s. His face looks like it always does: rigidly holding back fury, muscles clenched, the furrow between his eyebrows etched with an ice pick. The only difference is the two tears creeping down either side of his face.
My mom cries weekly, sometimes daily. Her cheeks are red even without make-up or emotion; when she cries, they look like cherry tomatoes or—forgive me—a clown’s. I think she has a saline imbalance because her tears don’t drip, they gush.
Pity? I feel something, but not pity. Pity is a luxury. Maybe when they’re old and they cry because they see my children only twice a year, then I’ll feel pity. Pity requires power.
They notice me. Dad looks at me to make certain I see and Mom looks away so I won’t. That’s their story.
I give one of those smiles that isn’t and head for my room as fast as I dare.
“Did you eat?” Mom asks. I’m her burden, after all.
“No thanks, Mom. Yes, I did,” I answer carefully. “gotta do homework and get to bed, I’m exhausted from practice. Good night.” Down the hall; my door; step inside. Safe.
As safe as home gets, anyway.
I have calculus problems and a two-page essay on Act I of King Lear due tomorrow, but no way can I concentrate now. Or sleep, of course. But my father sometimes hesitates when he sees my light out (“Athletes need their sleep!”); otherwise, he not only bursts in without knocking, he often objects to my having shut the door. So I’ll get up early again. Would a normal guy call Guin before bed? Stroll past the parents, announce “I’m going to call my girlfriend.” I almost laugh.
Well, God, I lived through another day. Four or five of my best hours. Did you do that?
I listen to the silence, which means God isn’t listening, or is listening but isn’t answering, or is listening and answering but didn’t translate into my language. He knows every language, right? Sometimes I suspect God’s talking to me constantly, but in binary. I’m missing every word.
Wouldn’t want to make it too obvious, huh?
That’s what I thought you’d say. Anyway, if it was you…thanks.
A blowtorch aimed at my left temple wakes me. I don’t believe in bad omens, but a migraine? Maybe. The first ray of sunlight assaults my eyes because my room has no curtains. I sit up to escape the glare.
Frilly pink doilies covered these windows before we “lost” my sister. She left when she was sixteen and I was nine. My parents think someone abducted her; denial moves mountains. They put her photo in post offices and on milk cartons, took out ads in every newspaper in the county. Finally, they decided she had died.
She left me a note. The outside said, “If you can keep a secret, read this. If you can’t, destroy it NOW!”
That’s a challenge, right? I was still four years from being a teenager. What did I know of her life? I swore to God (who I believed in then) I’d keep any secret I read.
I love you very much. You’re my only family. When you go to college—when, Buster—I will find you. I can’t tell you where I’m going cause I’m not really sure and even if I was I couldn’t risk Dad searching your room and finding this first. He won’t find me.
Just wanted you to know I’m okay. Sorry I can’t stick it out to cover you, Ton.
I’ll miss you! See you in 10 years.
PS I mean it, Paxton. You can’t tell them anything, no matter what! Now go burn this.
Her name is Amethyst. I told her that sounded too valuable for her and they should have named her “Trinket.” She told me Mom and Dad knew I’d be fat, so they named me “Ton.” But it sounded too obvious, so they added Pax (which she showed me in a dictionary) to make me peaceful about my obesity.
She’s been gone over 3,200 days now. Her note helped me more than she could know; it showed me I can get out, too. Last year, I got a scholarship for a UCLA summer program for high schoolers. It was the best eight weeks of my life, and I kept expecting her to sneak up behind me, but I was ahead of schedule. She’s not tracking me with a satellite. I’ll see her next year.
You might think I’ve done wrong, if you came from a family that wasn’t ours. I’m not going to defend myself. She knew what she was asking. If she wanted to repeal the vow of secrecy, she could contact me. Or them. Sure, I worry, but I’ve got to err in this direction. Otherwise, how would I face her? (Okay, a little defending.)
They let me move in four years after she left. Until then, I had a makeshift room—particleboard floor on pallets, plywood walls—in the basement. But our basement floods two or three times a year and everything smells of sewer. The fourth-grader didn’t care, as long as it kept me farther from them; the seventh-grader couldn’t survive junior high reeking of sewage. Picture diving into a piranha tank wearing blood aftershave.
“My” room still has rose-colored carpet. It reminds me of her and of why she had to leave. I think she got what she asked for to make up for other things, if you know what I mean. If you don’t, I’m happy for you.
My head’s still throbbing, and I’ve got thirty-five minutes to plow through my problems, crank out two pages, eat and dress. During the off-season, Jeff picks me up. From November to March, I run to school.
I leave home at 6:30 and arrive between 7:30 and 7:45. School starts with homeroom at 8:30. I pound on the door until Phil Tugano, the head custodian, lets me in. I worked two summers helping Phil scrape gum and much worse off every conceivable surface, repainting, reflooring, and making the old building shine so that, as Phil told me, “you pissants can come sludge it up again.”
“Morning, Rocky,” Phil says. I’ve soaked through my sweatshirt. “Already do your raw egg shots this morning?” Phil isn’t exactly a finely tuned athlete, except maybe by WWF standards. Phil is, exactly, massive. Big gut, enormous chest, my legs combined equal one of his arms, at least 360 altogether.
“Nah, it’s tofu shake day.”
“Mmm,” he says, “you know how to live. If you’re not too stuffed from that, I have a couple of old fashioneds left. Chocolate chocolate.”
“I know. Few crimes worse than offering to share food.” Phil enjoys the rumor among the students that he spent time in prison. My guess is some frosh made it up after Phil scowled and the kid wet his pants. Even the wannabe gangbangers give Phil double his space, which means most of the hallway. No one would believe he shares doughnuts.
“One. I’ll run home after practice.”
“Paxton, does Coach Brighton know what you do?”
“Oh, he knows. He sees me while he’s driving to school. Waves. Acts like he’s proud of me. He also knows he’s got me by the balls.”
Phil stares at me for a few seconds, then shakes his head. We walk to his “office,” a broom closet with a desk, no windows. He opens the white Foster’s box and sticks it under my nose.
I finish the doughnut before he’s closed the box again.
“Showering?” He asks, reaching for the key to open the locker room.
“You better believe it. I had a date last night.”
Phil draws his enormous head back like a turtle.
After three or four seconds, he decides I’m not pulling his leg. His cheeks slowly fold into this huge smile. Phil’s not exactly handsome, but his smile warms me someplace that’s cold most of the time.