Carly’s hair is falling out. She leaves gold strands everywhere, Gretel’s nightmare version of bread crumbs. We don’t talk about it.
February is ending and the sun is melting the ice. Everything’s mud, gray and ugly. There are four of us reclining on the picnic tables out at Lincoln Park, jeans rolled up to catch the sun and brown our winter pale legs, four girls, eight ankles. Sunny’s crossed and narrow, a fat blue vein snaking over the bone, a silver ankle bracelet around the left. Jess’s, straight up into her calves, pale and knobby with dark stubble. Carly’s, bones stretching skin. Mine, average, like everything else about me.
Maybe you passed by us and never had children, you might think we were talking about boys or makeup or pop music. If you’d had children, you’d wonder if we were up to no good, maybe smoking stolen cigarettes or sipping lukewarm beer, or, worse, DRUGS.
Maybe your child’s our age, and you wonder if your child knows us, if we might be friends or if we might be talking shit about your kid or bullying your kid, but parents never ask themselves if it’s their kid that’s the rotten bruise poisoning the rest of the fruit.
We sip forties of Mickey’s stashed in our backpacks, smoke cheap menthols Carly stole from her dad. He buys them by the carton and keeps them in the freezer. He’s drunk a lot, and he doesn’t ever notice, or doesn’t care. Which is worse? We don’t talk about that either.
All the things we don’t talk about are way more important than the things we do.
We’re not popular, but we’re not unpopular either. Fringe girls, Sunny and Carly pretty enough but Carly’s too white trash and Sunny doesn’t give two shits about anything at all really. She still glides through school and boyfriends, hangs out with us because we don’t require effort.
Me and Jess are chubby, not fat, but not thin. We could be serious studious girls but Jess isn’t smart enough, and I can’t focus. We are the clingers, not groupies, but attached to the Sunny and Carly train, standing behind them, hoping there’s a boy who will look past Sunny’s big green eyes and Carly’s blue ones, into our muddy browns and see us.
Well, not Carly, not so much anymore.
The thing that happened to Carly could have happened to anyone, even one of those stuck up bitches who keep leaving condoms in Carly’s locker and writing WHORE in cherry red lipstick on the door. Anyone can get drunk and left behind, when everyone’s stoned and fumbling for a way home. Why aren’t they writing RAPIST, on the boys’ lockers? That’s the real question, but I can’t ask it because I don’t have the required combination of looks and friends for it to mean anything. I could speak up and say something smart and insightful, spot fucking on, and people would wonder think who’s that girl? I bet most of my teachers only know me as a name on a roll call, block letters on paper. Except Mr. Baxter, call me Chip, because he teaches English and actually knows things and reads the things we can’t say out loud.
Potential, he said, when he put his hand on my shoulder the first time.
Finally! I wanted to scream. Yes! Would you mind telling everyone else?
The thing that happened with Carly happened in October, and Carly has two more years at this school. She doesn’t talk about any of it as she chews her nails to nubs, starving herself as she goes bald. There are purple half-moons engraved on her knuckles, gagging herself hard enough her teeth lock onto her fingers in protest. Little half moons engraved in purple on the skin. Scars. We all have them. Some are just easier to see.
Two more years of this school? She’ll disappear first. Fade to nothing and slip below the crust of the Earth, the only way anyone ever really leaves this town.
Not me. I’m not going to Michigan like my hotshot linebacker brother. And wherever my sister ends up, home schooled so she can spend hours at the skating rink, gliding and spinning and dancing across the ice. It’s the first year I haven’t been forced along to her boring ass competitions contest that were eating up my entire weekend.
I filled a lot of notebooks during those weekends, which is the drawback to having friends. It eats into the time I get to write about important things, things that will one day be published and ready by people who go, WHOA, this chick gets it.
Carly’s story became my story, names changed to protect the innocent and not innocent. The whole night unfolded to paper, up until the part where the four seniors carry the drunk sophomore off. It ends with the door shutting as one of them pulls out his phone, hitting record.
“Is this a true story?” Baxter asked me.
I knotted up inside.
I didn’t see the video but plenty of people did. I could have written the whole thing, but I couldn’t find the words, and it made my head hurt, to think past that closed door. I didn’t want to think about it, and I couldn’t stop. Once my neighbors dog got ahold of a squirrel and tore it to pieces, and it made this awful sound that never went away. It was the same, lying in bed thinking about not thinking about it, thinking about it and never sleeping. If it was like that for me, I could get Carly killing herself, but I would be the opposite. I would devour everything until my insides ruptured, split my skin apart.
When I figured out I wasn’t important, not like my sister or brother, I cooked three whole boxes of macaroni and cheese, Kraft. They had all gone to Dairy Queen to celebrate my brother’s scholarship, forgotten me, and I ate the whole pot, thick slick noodles sliding down my throat and burning into my stomach, where it sat in a fat lump pulsing and growing until I felt I could die, all that pressure.
“It’s just a story,” I told Baxter.
“Stories sometimes say what we can’t,” he said. His eyes were soft and round behind his glasses, watery. He had the requisite concerned look adults get when they think they can make some gigantic difference. It’s more about them than us.
Then I realized, he thought it was about me.
“Oh, god,” I said, and I started laughing. “No, its not about me. No guy in this school even looks at me.” I couldn’t stop laughing. It was so totally ridiculous.
“Oh, I bet that’s not true,” he said. His hand sat heavy on my shoulder, shrubs of hair blooming from his knuckles. He looked at his hand like he’d forgotten it, pulled it back.
I didn’t really notice teachers, anymore than they noticed me. They weren’t interested in me once they figured out I didn’t have the magic Phillips thing going on. They looked right through me, too.
But I started watching Baxter. He was tall and stooped shoulder and he wanted to be liked and that caused him not to be liked. Trust me, the struggle is real even for adults. My classmates are assholes, and I bet it’s no different anywhere else. People suck all the same no matter where they live.
Loneliness recognizes loneliness and I am lonely.
Carly hid herself away in baggy clothes, and Sunny started looking mean at everyone and Jess stayed silent though she wanted to say something. You could see the words bulging out her throat, but she knew better. Saying anything would be the end of us, at school. Forever.
I wrote about the squirrel too. Baxter said Call Me Chip and helped me submit it to a couple contests for high school kids. I got a runner up prize of a hundred bucks and a year’s subscription to a literary magazine I never read because the stories were so much better than mine I felt the words YOU’RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH thundering through my brain every time my mom slid it under the door of my room.
The hundred bucks went to diet pills off the internet, that gave me awful diarrhea, but I stayed big. I had to haul ass home every day for two weeks to check the mail for those so my mom or sister didn’t open them. I hid the certificate, too. A dumb contest anyone can enter doesn’t mean shit when your brother’s first string as a freshman and your sister’s heading for national championships.
Carly whittled herself away and Sunny got suspended for smoking and Jess started hanging out with some other girls, less pretty but better reputations. Today was the first time in two weeks she joined us, and she was quiet, even for her. I wondered if her other friends talked. If they were like us, stars being forced into square spaces. Maybe they were like puzzle pieces, fitting in just right.
Jess says, “Brian Lindt asked me out.”
Sunny laughs out loud. “Brian fucking Lindt?”
He went to grade school with us, thick glasses and a bowl haircut clear into middle school. He still has the glasses, but now he has a crewcut, like he’s already someone’s dad. He doesn’t smoke or drink or do anything but what they want. Also, he’s definitely a virgin.
“What?” Jess says. “He’s nice.”
“He’s a loser,” Sunny says.
“He’s not a loser,” Jess snaps. “He just wants to go to college. Like, get a good job.”
“Come back here like the rest of them and rot in mediocrity,” Sunny says darkly. She doesn’t talk about her future but it will be somewhere on the East Coast, something different and unusual and she’ll be good at it like everything else.
“Being happy isn’t mediocre,” Jess says. “Maybe thinking it is, that’s the real loss.”
“ooohhh,” Sunny says sarcastically. “Look who’s getting a personality all of the sudden.”
Sunny’s mean streak, glitters as it lashes out. They’re ruining our last day together, but they don’t know it, so I can’t be upset about it. The duffel bag I didn’t even have to sneak out this morning. Dad was at work and Millie and Mom were already at the rink. I just put it the backseat of Chip’s car when I got to school. He left it unlocked for me.
After the Carly not Carly story, and the squirrel vs dog, I wrote a poem called Lies My Father Told M. It was inspired by the song Screenwriter’s Blues, but I added in some stuff for Call Me Chip. I started wearing V-neck t-shirts and he was always looking but not looking at my tits when we met after class. One day we went to his house so he could show me his leather books, all the classics, and then we fucked on his bed that wasn’t made. I didn’t tell him he was the first, but he figured it out.
Carly doesn’t know her first. Doesn’t remember that night. It’s for the best, even though it’s turned her into a walking skeleton.
Jess is tight lipped, fighting and losing the war against crying, and Carly’s running her fingers through her hair, the strands are coming loose faster and faster, and he asked me if I would miss them and I think I will but not enough to choke to death on the emptiness here. Even he doesn’t fill it up. He listens to me and tells me his secrets and sees me like the person I want to be, smart and funny and on way to being somebody, but it’s still not enough. Restlessness chews at me, infects him.
Jess storms off and Sunny says she has to leave and Carly sits mute with me, not saying anything and Chip says they can come visit in three years, when I’m 18, and we can’t get in trouble. I want to wake up next to him and see his eyes open, and I want to sleep with his big arms around me, and more than that, I’m going to show everyone what they missed seeing in me, that they could have known me but they didn’t and they’ll be sorry. Especially the people I talk to the least, my family.
I’ll come back then, in three years, and a soft whisper bubbles up inside me, asking if Carly will still be alive. I hope so. I dropped a card in the mail to Carly’s dad, even his drunk ass can’t miss the meaning.
Carly says goodbye and wanders home. I get up and text Chip, and when his car pulls up five minutes later, I drop my phone on the ground and walk towards his car, towards someone I love but don’t, running not away but towards the person I’m supposed to be.
Maybe you’ll remember seeing me, but probably not.
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