There’s not a lot of things in life you know for sure. You’re not sure about your identity or your aspirations. You don’t completely trust your memories. People even like to tell you that even science isn’t known for sure, and you’d have to agree because in middle school your favorite thing to do was say ‘Truth isn’t universal.’ There is one thing you’re sure of, though: it’s the little things that count.
The little things count when Ashley pokes her little pink tongue out of her little mouth at the class photo and says, “I look so bad!” They matter when the girls crowd around the picture and point slim fingers at ‘ugly hair’ and moan about being too tall or tilting their head too much or not liking the clothes they wore. Later when you squint at your round face in the front row, short hair held back by a headband, legs crossed, hands on your knees, your focus is drawn to your face. It’s the same face that your mom loved for it’s round nose and cute cheeks but your mouth is so square. You frown and tuck the photo back into its folder because little things matter. A smile matters.
The little things count when you’re in fourth grade and you’re standing in line to sign in in the morning but get stuck behind two girls. They count when you witness the secret handoff of a Justin Bieber book between two smiling friends. When one of them is the new girl your classmates smile too wide at and immediately abandon when recess starts and the other is the kindest girl you know who’s hated for crying too much little things matter. While you’re staring at Justin Bieber’s long hair on the glossy hardcover surrounded by lights and you member that just yesterday you’d overheard your other friends complaining about his high voice and terrible music and terrible hair little things matter. A book matters. Two girls matter. You’re silence and your ignorant agreement with the Other Friends matter.
Imagine it’s 4:13 am. You’re lying in bed with your head where your feet go and your feet on your pillow. Your right arm lies limp, phone in hand, casting a dim light on the ceiling. You should be sleeping. You have no more to stories read, no more pictures to look at, the more things to look up. Your eyes hurt and beg to be closed but you don’t sleep. Instead you roll over and open instagram for the sixth time and scroll through the pictures you’ve already seen.
You have no problem with sleeping or falling asleep. When you fall asleep all the muscles you didn’t know you were using start to tingle, then relax. The world fades to white noise and your body gets that cozy kind of warm. Sometimes after lying still with your eyes closed for a while you start to feel weightless and the bed feels more like the porch bench swing you once sat on when you were a kid. You love it. While you’re sleeping you get to see the most wonderful stories. During the day you have to scroll through webcomics and flip through books and stare at screens to get stories and to create your own you have to put in so much work for something you can’t even see, but in sleep it’s there and it’s easy and no matter how random and convoluted it still makes sense. Even though you can never seem to remember a sense of touch you feel fear and love and it’s perfect and you love it. You’re issue it’s with sleeping, it’s with waking up.
When you open your eyes in the morning your stomach feels as if it has shrunk. Your chest feels like it wants to expand but there’s a weight pressing down on it and your throat drops down into your chest cavity. You try to take deep breaths in through your nose, in through your mouth, but there’s a sharp pain right under your collar bone followed by a dull burn. Then you realize what this feeling is. It’s the feeling when you’re taking shallow breaths and you breath in too fast. It’s the feeling you got when you pretended to hyperventilate that one time, just to see what it felt like. It feels something like how you remember fear. And somewhere in you brain the idea that if you move it will only get worse appears, so you just lie there. You lie on you side and stare at the door and try to distract yourself with your phone and it’s hard to breath and you’re afraid, but you don’t know what of. The joint between your legs and hips starts to ache because there’s some muscle somewhere that’s been tense since you woke up but you don’t know which one. No matter how much you stretch and bend you legs the tension won’t go away and you’re afraid.
Eventually the burning feeling sinks lower and lower, then fades to a light squeeze on your chest and a heavy stomach. This is when you roll out of bed and drag yourself, phone in hand, out the door and into the bathroom to brush your teeth. You hate it.
So who can blame you when it’s 4:13 am and you really, really don’t want to go to sleep.
Tonight the moon is too close. Instead of being the size of a penny it looks bigger than a quarter and it glows a murky yellow-brown. As you look at it through the windshield of the car, right above the trees and right next to the driver’s seat headrest, you comment that it’s so yellow tonight. No one answers. So you lean your left side against the car door and watch moon.
Tonight is humid. The tiny car, jam-packed with as many people as it can fit, is slowly warming up. Your little brother’s head falls onto your arm with a soft thump. The spot on your arm starts to feel sticky under your sweatshirt. Then his head lolls forward. You twist around and gently lift his head. It’s heavier than you expected. You turn, then rest his head on top of your shoulder, then lean back on the car door and look out at the moon.
Tonight the highway is only scattered with cars but it’s noisy. The illuminated stretch of pavement in front of you is empty and on the other side of the concrete barrier is a crooked line of headlights that stretches out and over the hill. The engine is grumbling and when you cross over to older pavement it switches to a low airy murmur and the car starts to vibrate sending tingles through your hip. Every time a car passes there’s a muffled zip and after a while it becomes almost rhythmic. Whir…zip…whir…zip…whir… zip…whir…zip.
Suddenly the car gives a little jerk and your dad slaps his forehead and groans, “Oh! I forgot something in the house.” Suddenly there’s conversation about what was forgotten and what should be done ripping through the sticky silence and suddenly there’s turning onto exits that makes you unsure whether you’re going to go back or go on. You can hear your breathing. Your head’s faintly aching. Then you realize you can no longer see the moon.
Your neighbors’ house burned down yesterday. Four dead, even the dog. Nothing left. You heard it from your mom through tears and hugs and then on tv and then in harsh whispers from the lunch table next to yours. You just sat there. You didn’t cry. You didn’t know why.
The house is on the wrong side, so when you walk to school you don’t have to pass it. You just see, out of the corner of your eye, a gray frame in the shape of a house and a pile of ash that spills into the lawn, dirtying what grass is still green. You get a clearer view of it on the way home. Every day it changes, people picking through the remains for memories and parts and eventually the rain wipes away the ash until the place looks like a pile of sticks, like the model house you built in third grade. One week you join the entire town as they crowd around the house with flowers and candles and stories and tears to mourn the family. You just stand with your hands in your pockets, cheeks pink from the wind, and it feels like your body is sinking. It gets difficult to keep your eyes open and the murmurs and sobs are being replaced by a faint buzz of white noise, so you gently push your way out of the crowd and slip into your house hoping no one saw. Later, in your bed, with wet hair and a mouth that tastes like mint you curl up and press your clasped hands against your chest and wonder why you still haven’t cried. Your stomach sinks deeper.
The day of the fire your mom has herded you out of the house. Even though your houses were far away she could see the smoke and you were leaving, just in case. Bundled in a blanket and wrapped in her arms you’d watched from across the street as the flames lit up the sky a beautiful scarlet that faded to black. The night of your high school graduation when you watch the sunset from the playground with your friends it reminds you of the fire. Beside you they laugh and cheer and send off that last day by raising a stolen bottle of champagne. Then they pass it around with some plastic cups as the stars come out, bumping each other’s shoulders and reminiscing about how Alex drew crude pictures in sharpie on the whiteboard that one time. As you sip champagne under night sky your friends poke fun about your apathetic face until someone tells them off with a ‘they’ve always been this way’. You lie down and inform them that honestly, really, you’re gonna miss them so much. You’re gonna miss this place. They laugh and pile on hugs and the corners of your eyes crinkle just a little.
Later, when you volunteer to dispose of the empty cups the slight sinking feeling in your stomach that’s become so normal it’s like it’s not there spreads to your chest. It feels like someone’s attached a rope to your insides and is struggling to climb up. You toss the cups in the trash. When you return you return to tear stained faces and more hugging, this time sorrowful. You sit down on the side and smooth out your white graduation clothes and wait for someone to come to you. And when one by one they do you still haven’t cried.
Shouting. In a big wooden house right in the middle of Lawrence Street, far back from the road, guarded by a line of bushes and trees, you pull the blanket over your head and your computer and push your earbud father into your ears. Some people say the house’s walls look almost orange. Others like to comment on how massive and amazing it must be. Most people, once they’ve entered the place, just gush about the pool. Today all there is is shouting.
You come home to this house in Novembers and Decembers and in Marches and Junes. Groaning irritably you drag yourself out of the backseat of the car, then take charge of your rolling suitcase and drag that inside. Your little brother always runs in ahead and will, with a 70% probability, forget to close the car door behind him. Your parent cary in the mail, layering on whispered phrase after phrase about how much they love having you home. And you smile a little. You’re home.
Sitting in front of the piano, your laptop open on the bench, you can hear your dad angrily dial the number for credit card help. Out of the corner of your eyes he’s just a little blur of navy blue in huge white socks pacing back and forth. Then there’s shouting. He stops pacing and puts the phone on speaker and there’s shouting and shouting and shouting. We canceled the card. You’re sending us bills and then late fees for bills we don’t have to pay. I can check. Fix this! Sir I can’t do anything about this right now but- Shouting. Shouting. Shouting.
You shoot up and leave the safety of the music room to grab a blanket, then shuffle back to your spot in front of the piano as fast as you can. You force yourself to sit down slowly, take the time to cross your legs and wrap the blanket around yourself in a way that doesn’t tangle your hair. The shouting gets louder, though, so you tug the blanket over your head. You turn the volume of your movie up, but you can still here him shouting. You can still tell exactly what he’s saying and your stomach is starting to swim and it’s getting hard to focus on the screen even in your warm cave of blood red light and you can’t take it anymore. There’s shouting and more shouting and you think this is why people hate their jobs it’s because of people like us and people like you who don’t do a thing and suddenly your hiding place is suffocating so you throw back the blanket to breath. Finally breath in the cool air of a house unused. And suddenly it stops. There’s no more shouting, just your chest aching from your heart beating too fast and a quiet scene in a movie with the volume turned all the way up.
Read Part 1 here
You hear your first rumor in second grade as well. It’s about a boy named Ian who moves in near the end of the year. He’s a little shorter than you, long eyelashes and lanky frame, and has a feathery dark brown mess of hair sitting on top of his head. He also has the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. So of course he becomes you’re almost friend. Almost.
In second grade recess comes before lunch. Second only to independent writing time, it’s one of your favorite times of the day. Before recess the whole grade crowds into the second grade hall, filling the building with sounds of opening and slamming short blue lockers. The hallways overflows with the chatter of young high pitched voices. The windows at the end of the hall spill in bright noon day light and in your wide second grade mind there’s no room in that hallway for anything but smiles.
One particular day, sometime soon after deciding that rather than slamming your locker door you would carefully lift the latch and close it, Ian doesn’t come out with the rest of the crowd. But you don’t look for him. You’re not friends, just almost friends. Just people who are very ver nice to each other. So you hear it from another almost friend. The girl with frizzy brown hair asks where he is and the very blond girl says he was talking to the teacher. Then that they were arguing. And the teacher had thrown a table. And he had thrown a chair. And for half a moment, while you watch their backs walk away, you believe it. Then you don’t. Then, for the rest of recess and most of lunch and every time in the future that you thought of the event your throat tightens and you gets a bitter oily taste in your mouth because you’re not sure if it’s true.
You put more thought into it than you should. You think about how Ian’s face always twisted a little bit every time he talked about your teacher and you think about how your teacher can have a short temper sometimes. You think about how your teacher is a universal least favorite even though you never figured out why and you think about how no one’s really friends with Ian because he’s eccentric and passionate and acts in a way that, to anyone older, places him as obviously rich. And you like to trust people so much. And you don’t like to ask. So you never find out if the rumor was true. All you know is that in third grade Ian makes a lot of friends then loses them all in eighth and your second grade teacher’s name is said with distaste right up until the day of your middle school graduation.
The flames in the sky are particularly bright tonight, particularly harsh, particularly elegant. The dying sun is casting out a gradient of deep red peeking over tree tops that fades into black and then a sea of constellations. Down on earth you lean against a burnt out street lamp, face glowing unnaturally pale in the light from your phone. You’re wrapped in black denim and a puffy black coat to shield yourself against the crisp late winter air. Under the moonlight your jacket seems to glow. So does you long black hair. You just stands there, thumb steadily swiping up, your hair slowly slipping out from behind your ear and falling over the left side of your face. In the dark your brown eyes turn colorful from the reflections of picture after picture on the screen. There’s a faint smile on your face. It’s almost as if you were looking at pictures of you sister’s baby girl instead of fan art. After a while the smile fades. Your other hand comes up so you can change the settings with staccato taps. Then you put the phone to sleep. You kneel down and sets it screen up on the grass, passwordless and half charged, then go back to leaning on the lamppost and lift your face to the sky. Your let out a little breath. When it condenses into a little white cloud you laugh. The sound is like the tinkling of a bell, ringing in the night.
Your favorite constellation is out tonight. Looking up at the belt of three stars you wonder if there are more stars you can see or crickets in the forest behind you. They’re quite loud tonight, you think, but they’re also quite beautiful. They’re like quiet chatter in the back of a classroom. The sound is calming and slows the thoughts that usually swim in and out of you head faster than you can process them.
While you’re admiring the way you can see every dip and bump in a particularly tall cloud a car rolls by. The headlights leak light into your line of sight when it passes and the quiet crunch of tires on ground makes your shoulders relax. Then the car is gone. You watch the sky until the clouds roll in. Now the street as far as you can see is black. You take a deep breath. You look down the street. There’s a slight fluttering in your stomach, but when you see another pair of headlights the fluttering fades. You push yourself off the lamppost and tuck your hair back behind your ear. The aching cheeks and ringing in your ears that have followed you since eighth grade, followed you through big decisions and social situation, are gone. You stand and wait, arms hanging at your sides, mind blank. When the car is almost in front of you you take half a step forward. You let your body relax. Then you let your eyes close and with a slight smile on your face you let yourself fall.