How hard would I have to bite my tongue if I want to bite it in half? Is it a sawing motion? Chewing? Or would I have to chomp down hard, ignoring the pain, pushing through until both bridges of my teeth touch? I consider trying it. I won’t. But I consider it.
“There’s Mexican hot cocoa,” she calls out over the noisy grinding of coffee beans. “The good kind. Trader Joe’s.”
I stare at my arms.
“No. But thank you.” I am doing all I can to sound civil. I’m not feeling civil today. I don’t like it when my mother pretends to be chipper before eight a.m. She might be even less of a morning person than I am.
She stares at the grinder. Concentrating.
“Maybe you should wait,” she says.
I take a breath.
Wait. Skip the first day of school. Few things scream, Abnormal! louder than a girl who can’t even stomach the first day of school. Everyone is anxious. Everyone wishes that one extra week of August could’ve miraculously materialized. I have to remember that. It’s not just me.
I dreamed about it last night. First dream I can remember having in a month at least. In the dream, I walk into my homeroom. Pfefferberg’s homeroom, which is from last year, so that makes no sense. I head for my old seat next to the green filing cabinets. It’s so quiet, but I hear my footsteps, like my shoes are cement blocks. I sit. Everyone turns to me and no one makes a sound. I can’t see their eyes. I almost can in my periphery, but when I try to look directly at someone’s face, the eyes vanish. I pray for the bell to ring, for Pfefferberg to enter, for something to distract them from me. Anything. Then I hear something, which is a mild relief from the silence. It sounds like rain, but only a trickle. Maybe the ceiling is leaking? No one’s getting wet. A faucet somewhere? A toilet running? No. I look down at my feet and see the puddle growing in volume. I lift my head again. If I stare it’ll be obvious. So I sit in it and keep my gaze facing forward as if the piss isn’t mine.
“You look like you’re a thousand miles away,” she says, pulling me back to the present.
If I could be a thousand miles away, I would be. “Let’s get a dog.”
“Random much?” Mom pours her coffee into a large, lopsided, maroonish mug. She took a pottery class once. “Dogs don’t enjoy city apartments.”
Now she hovers. She will not sit next to me; too sisterly. She will not sit across from me; too confrontational. She just floats around, pretending that she prefers standing.
“What about a small handbag dog?”
“Is this a real request, Lily?”
I sigh. Probably not. But I’d love a little, adorable diversion right now. Sheila E. disagrees. Purring and sleepy from her breakfast of organic whitefish, she bats at my calf in protest.
“Play hooky,” she says. “Let’s go to Wave Hill. Somewhere fun that feels like we’re in the middle of nature. Want to?”
No. I want you to force me to go to school like a normal mother.
“I have to get it over with,” I say, and it’s true. “If I wait, it’ll just be worse.”
She nods, blowing on her coffee.
I leave the table and realize I had no reason to be there at all. I wasn’t eating or drinking anything. Autopilot. Before the first day of school we always used to sit at the table and nosh and gossip. My body brought me there, but the rest of me had lost interest.
My backpack is lighter than it should be. No textbooks. No laptop. No notebooks neatly color-coded for each subject. Just my iPod, a pen, and a banana. Good enough.
I head for the door.
“You need money for your MetroCard?”
I look at my mom, with her open, hopeful face, and it’s hard not to hate myself. I’m sure she had such high hopes for her daughter.
“That’s okay, Mom. I think I’m gonna walk.”
“Do you want me to walk you?”
“No.” I shut the door behind me and move quickly to the elevator. Inside I watch the numbers counting down to one, feeling as though my soul is being slowly sucked out of me through my butt.
In the lobby, Marcus looks down at whatever the hell he has behind his doorman’s desk. For a while, he tried to smile at me. Now he does his best to politely ignore me, which is fine. I step outside onto the sidewalk and look up at the sky. It is a ridiculously beautiful day. The sky is clear as spring water. But then again, spring water isn’t blue, so is the sky ever actually clear? No idea, but I now want to taste blue spring water.
I walk down the block and smile, imagining its deliciousness. It wouldn’t be a fake blue like in a Rocket pop. It would taste like regular spring water with just a refreshing splash of blueberry juice.
The breeze feels like I’m being kissed all over my exposed skin. I inhale deeply, wanting to savor the beauty of this moment before stepping into the next.
It’s going to be a terrible year.
* * *
The smell could be worse. Much worse, considering. I lean against the stall door in the third-floor bathroom and close my eyes. The day hasn’t been quite as horrific as I had imagined. I walked into my new homeroom and, yes, for that first awful, awful second, I thought I might fall down dead. Everyone snapped their heads over to look at me, but most of them looked away just as fast. A few of the bleeding hearts gave me sorrowful, pitying looks that made me want to hit them. But mostly no one wants to look at me at all. I’m the invisible girl. It’s fine. I’m not exactly used to it, though. People used to like me well enough and I used to be . . . well, likable. But then again, what does it mean to be “likable,” really? To say all the right things at all the right times? To be funny? To be smart, but never too smart? I don’t know. And after last year, I’ll probably never know.
I am the invisible girl.
A few short months ago, a fate like this would’ve sent me into a three-day crying jag. Not now.
At least I’ll be left alone.
The stall’s walls are clean, painted over. There hasn’t been enough time yet for them to get refilled with messages about who sucks and who loves who. Nothing to distract me from memories of last period.
Last period was tough.
Mr. Crenshaw was rambling on about some science-y crap. I’d zoned out for a minute, trying to remember a sweet little melody I came up with a few days ago but was too lazy to write down.
While I was searching my brain for music notes, everyone in the room started shuffling around, talking to each other, and moving seats. I’d missed something critical and had no idea what I was supposed to do.
“Uh? What did he say?” I stupidly asked the nearest body, which belonged to Jamie Paulsen. She glared at me with complete disgust.
“We’re picking lab partners. Clearly.” She got away from me as quickly as she could. I almost grinned. Jamie’s still as bitchy to me as ever. I dig her consistency.
I looked around the room, trying to find any possible allies. Neither Jackie nor Tracy wound up in my chem class. Haven’t seen them in forever anyway. People quickly paired off and I felt my pulse racing because no one even bothered looking in my direction. But then I noticed Tara McKenzie staring out the window.
“Hey, Tara,” I said, practically breathless.
She jumped, startled by my presence. “What?”
“Do you need a lab partner?” I asked, hoping not to sound as desperate as I felt.
She turned back to the window for a moment. I tried to follow her gaze, but saw nothing worth looking at out there. A chain-link fence. A black squirrel fighting a white pigeon. She sighed and shrugged. It was the best I could hope for.
We sat in our new seats. Mr. Crenshaw droned on about our responsibilities to our partner and how class would be split between lectures and experiments and though I seriously did not give a single shit, I paid close attention to avoid another near-humiliation.
When the bell rang and I gathered my things, I felt Tara’s hard eyes on me. I didn’t know what she was thinking or what she wanted, but I felt like I should say something.
“Thanks. I mean, uh, you know . . .” Eloquent.
For the first time in my memory—and I’ve known her since middle school—Tara smiled. A big, bright, evil smile.
“How does it feel?” she asked. And she left me standing there with my legs trembling and my stomach roiling and a giant knot in my throat. I retreated to the bathroom.
At five feet zero, she’s always been sort of small, not fat, not thin, but somehow shapeless. Pale, sickly-looking skin prone to breakouts and mousy brown hair that’s neither short nor long, but always mysteriously in her face. Everything about her defies description, and not in a good way.
Tara the Target.
So many people hate Tara McKenzie. So many of us have teased her over the years. Tara McKenzie who had the pregnancy scare in eighth grade, which led to the rumor that the father of her alleged unborn child was her brother. If that weren’t bad enough, the rumor started because no one could believe anyone else on earth would touch her.
A few years ago, she was the object of so much ugly attention. Now it’s like she’s a ghost no one even bothers thinking about anymore. I am pretty sure that I have never said anything cruel to Tara in my life. But have I laughed at her expense? Yep. Have I ever stood up for her? Nope. I don’t think I’ve ever said a single word to her until today. She’s no dummy. I am one of the invisible now and she wants me to know that she knows. Despite my wishfully thinking that I prefer it this way, it kind of feels like death. But then again, how would I know what death feels like?
I flush the toilet and leave the stall. I check myself in the mirror. Surprise, surprise: I look like shit. Pale. Pasty. My white teeth look buttery in comparison to my skin. I really look at myself. A one-hundred-fifteen-pound sad girl with frown lines, bony arms, and an unruly head of long, curly dark hair. I sigh and briefly consider adding lipstick and/or mascara to this atrocity, but that’s my autopilot driving again. What’s the point?
I check my watch. 12:12. Lunch. Do I have it in me to deal with lunch today? Again, I feel that indignant (and possibly stupid) resolve I felt this morning when my mother suggested I blow off school. It’ll only be worse if I wait.
I hang out for another few minutes until the bell rings, having skipped gym completely, then I blend into the crowded hallway as if I am just like them and I head for the cafeteria. For a split second, I’m sure I hear the whispered words “razor” and “that’s her” and “scars,” but I turn toward the sounds and no one is looking in my direction. Regardless, I keep my eyes focused straight ahead of me, just like in my dream. If anyone cares enough to stare and whisper, I won’t see it. I choose not to.
Casually, I get in line and pretend to be concerned about the day’s menu. I’m not the least bit hungry. I am only doing this to prove to myself that I can. It is not a meal. It is a quest.
“You did not! With her?”
“She’s five hundred pounds.”
“She’s not that fat.”
“Dude, she’s a hippo.”
“Well, she’s a pretty tight hippo, then.”
Derek Miller and Jason Chung. Dipshits. I back away to create some space between me and them, hoping someone will take the hint and jump ahead of me in line. It doesn’t work.
“What happened to Jamie?”
“Tired of psycho-bitch drama.”
I do my best to tune them out. The line slinks forward. I try to recall a particular melody. That little tune I came up with the other day. I can only think of the first three notes. It’s so frustrating. I love the days when a song just presents itself to me, like a little gift. But I have such trouble remembering it if I don’t write it down. And as soon as I start to write it down, it doesn’t feel like a gift anymore. Mom once suggested I study music composition. She meant well, but come on. It’s like, let’s take the one thing I enjoy and make it as boring as everything else.
Derek and I make eye contact. He turns away from me as fast as he can, but not before twisting his face in revulsion. Feeling is mutual, degenerate.
The choices seem to be meat loaf or meat loaf. One of those things is probably not meat loaf, but I don’t dare ask. Instead I take a prepared salad and sandwich from the counter and pay.
I walk back into the cafeteria and scan the room for a safe place. I am fully prepared to run the hell out of here if I have to, but by some miracle, I spot Jackie and Tracy. I haven’t seen either of them since June, but I did speak to Jackie on the phone once or twice over the summer and Tracy sent me a card.
“They never pay attention to student input, but I think competitive rugby would be great for the school. Even if it’s just intramural at first.” Jackie saws her meat loaf or meat loaf as she says this. Before she can continue, Tracy gently nudges her and they both look up at me.
“Hi,” I say, barely above a whisper. Where has my voice gone?
They’re quiet for a moment. Then Jackie stands and hugs me. I can’t hug her back because I am still holding my tray, so it’s a sloppy hug. When she finally releases me, she just stands there and looks at me for a second.
“You look great, sweetie,” she says. Jackie is one of those girls who has been calling her friends “sweetie” and “honey” since she was about eight. For some reason, I don’t mind so much today.
“Thanks. Is it okay if I—”
“Of course! Sit down.”
“It’s good to see you, Lily,” Tracy says, but her face disagrees.
“How are you doing?” Jackie asks with parental concern.
“Fine. Thanks.” I start to eat my salad, which tastes like paper.
“Well, you look terrific,” Jackie says, and she nods vigorously with encouragement, and although I was relieved to conquer my first lunch without being annihilated, Jackie’s decision to treat me like a brave cancer survivor suggests that I may have made an error.
“How was the summer for you guys?” I ask, shifting the focus.
“It was good,” Tracy says, glancing around. She won’t meet my eyes.
“It was better than good. Tell her,” Jackie goads.
Tracy blushes. “I met a guy.”
“A lifeguard. He looks like he belongs on the cover of GQ,” Jackie squeals.
“That’s awesome,” I say, hoping I sound enthusiastic.
Jackie gushes about Tracy’s new dude. I smile and nod at the right intervals, but internally I’m wondering if I will have to stay and listen to this for my entire lunch period. And will I have to tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that? While Jackie summarizes the pool party where she met Tracy’s man candy (another party I wasn’t invited to, but who’s keeping track?), Marie Diaz joins our table. She politely nods in my direction, but then ignores my presence. They all do. We weren’t always the best of friends, but we had been close. Really close. The three of us. Always the three of us. From seventh grade on up, it was me and Jackie and Tracy. I picture the card Tracy sent me over the summer: Van Gogh’s Irises. The message inside was simple and sweet. This too shall pass. Her mother probably picked it out and forced her to sign it.
I barely know Marie, but apparently they’d all had quite a summer without me. Perhaps Marie has taken my place. Trade in one curly brunette for another. I pick at my soggy chicken sandwich, feeling angry with myself for the tears threatening to escape my eyes and embarrass me.
“Oh my God, Tracy, you’re such a ho.” Marie snorts.
“Just because I’m not ashamed of my needs does not make me a ho, beeyotch,” she teases back. It’s like they’ve always been friends. Maybe they have been and I just didn’t notice. I sip my milk, which is white and wet but somehow doesn’t taste enough like milk to be convincing. Who are these people? Were they always like this? Am I like this too when I’m not depressed? They’re so annoying. And yet I still want them to want me here. Why?
“What school did you say he goes to?” Marie asks.
“He’s at SUNY New Paltz.”
“A college man. Nice,” I pipe in. They all glance at me for a second, puzzled. But then Tracy sort of half smiles and says, “Yeah. Thanks,” though she still won’t meet my eyes. Then they all go right back to gabbing again, as though I weren’t there.
I turn and look at all the tables. All the excitement. All the friends rehashing summer parties, passing around phones with beach photos, making new memories as they speak. I hate them.
The trio says nothing as I leave to dump my tray and the remains of my disappointing lunch. I’m contemplating getting back on line for a brownie to drown my sadness in fat when I notice a table next to the wall by the doors with a single occupant. I have never seen him before; I would remember if I had. He’s black, pretty dark, with sharp cheekbones, a faint beard growing in, and long dreadlocks. I inch just a bit closer and squint. He doesn’t have any food or a tray at his table. Just a large sketch pad. He’s drawing. I can’t see what from this distance. He is completely engaged in his work. His left eyebrow is raised. Or perhaps his right eyebrow is furrowed. Hard to tell. He does not seem to be the least bit interested in anything going on around him, and definitely doesn’t seem to care about the fact that he is alone.
Jesus. He’s beautiful.
I decide to go for the brownie.
“Do you guys know that new kid?” I ask when I return to the table, projecting my voice well above a whisper this time. For a moment, they all appear dumbstruck, as though they’d forgotten I was their lunch companion for the day.
“What new kid?” Jackie asks.
“The one by himself. The black guy.” I hate doing that, describing somebody using just their race. I wouldn’t do that if I were pointing out my mother in a crowd. I wouldn’t say, “She’s that white woman over by the salad.” In this case, my description works because our school isn’t exactly overflowing with black kids. (It’s so bad there was a New York Times article about it.)
They all look in his direction.
“I don’t know him,” Tracy mumbles.
“Me either,” Marie offers.
Jackie nods dubiously. “Yeah. He’s in my homeroom. And history. He has a weird name. Dariomitochondria? Dunno. Something with way too many syllables, if you ask me.”
I didn’t ask you.
“Think he might’ve been kicked out of his old school. That’s what I heard anyway,” Jackie says. “Why?”
The bell rings, and we all start to go our separate ways. With no warning, Jackie attacks me with another hug. In the midst of this embrace, I assure her that I’m fine and that she shouldn’t worry.
She releases me.
“Let’s get together and talk soon, okay? Like really talk.”
“Promise me, Lily,” she says.
“I promise,” I lie.
She smiles and walks away. We were just at the same table for forty-five minutes, and she had no interest in talking to me then. Probably just keeping up appearances.
As I grab my backpack, I look toward the table next to the wall by the doors, but he’s already gone. I didn’t see Tara McKenzie in the cafeteria at all.
* * *
The wind has picked up, and instead of kissing me all over, it whips my hair in my face and tries to lift my shirt like a kite. The ferry rocks back and forth and I feel slightly queasy. I know it will pass. It always does.
My phone vibrates. I don’t need to check it to see who’s calling me. To be fair, I am late. A good two hours late. But today, the beautiful part of today, passed with me indoors and unable to be a part of it. I also needed some time. All summer (not counting the bad days), my time belonged to me. Mom was always in her office, ostensibly writing, or attending luncheons and giving talks to disheartened but hopeful women. I could walk all over the city if I wanted to. I could sit in my room and stare at the hardwood floor if I wanted to. I got accustomed to the quiet of my mind. Now I’m back to the regiment. Now I’m back with the people.
A text. I read the screen: Where r u? Pizza, Chinese, or Indian? I sigh and text her back: Indian. Home soon. The ferry is heading back to the city from Staten Island. I have already ridden back and forth twice, but it’s time to get off the boat and go home. Maybe Mom had a good day. Maybe she’s finally had a breakthrough on the book that she’s been writing for nine years. It’s possible.
When I get home, I turn my key and open the door, and there she is: right where I left her, as though she’s been standing in this spot all day.
“How was it?” she barks at me, and I jump out of my skin. After I recover from my mild heart attack, I tell her it was fine.
“Where were you?” she asks with more intensity than she probably intends.
“Nowhere, Mom. I just needed some time. Everything’s cool.”
She exhales a little.
I get out some plates and put the vegetable korma on the coffee table. I spoon out some fish curry while she searches through the Netflix options.
“Documentary? Movie? TV show? Look. Nine to Five ! Have you ever seen this? It’s a great flick.” She chatters on about the brilliance that is Lily Tomlin as an evil Snow White, and I look at my fish and my papadums and my pakora and I pick up my fork and it feels so cold and familiar and nothing. And I just start sobbing like an idiot.
“Oh, Jesus,” my mom cries, and she throws her arms around me. “Baby, what’s wrong? What’s wrong?”
Through hiccups comes “I don’t know.” Those three stupid words. I’ve said them so many times.
But I do know. For a minute, I felt content. Satisfied with my delivery food, the prospect of watching Nine to Five, and the thought that this was the best I could ever expect from life.
And I lost my shit.
The Truth of Right Now
Lily is returning to her privileged Manhattan high school after a harrowing end to her sophomore year and it’s not pretty. She hates chemistry and her spiteful lab partner, her friends are either not speaking to her or suffocating her with concerned glances, and nothing seems to give her joy anymore. Worst of all, she can’t escape her own thoughts about what drove her away from everyone in the first place.
Enter Dari (short for Dariomauritius), the artistic and mysterious transfer student, adept at cutting class. Not that he’d rather be at home with his domineering Trinidadian father. Dari is everything that Lily needs: bright, creative, honest, and unpredictable. And in a school where no one really stands out, Dari finds Lily’s sensitivity and openness magnetic. Their attraction ignites immediately, and for the first time in what feels like forever, Lily and Dari find happiness in each other.
In twenty-first-century New York City, the fact that Lily is white and Dari is black shouldn’t matter that much, but nothing’s as simple as it seems. When tragedy becomes reality, can friendship survive even if romance cannot?