It’s getting colder as we move into November. We can feel it in the air, especially in the living room where H smashed through the windowpane with a tennisball, playing wall ball in the alley. The hole goes clean through the window, no screen to be seen, and when the wind blows we feel its crispness. I told Mama she should call for someone to fix it, put in a new pane of glass, but that would cost too much money for us, she tells me, so instead she boards it up, or tapes it, rather, with this purple duct tape she bought at the dollar store. I feel poor.
I don’t know who I am, not really, especially at school. Sometimes I’m the man, I swear, & the guys give me slaps on my back and fistbumps and I’m on it on it, like making all the best jokes and showing the exact right amount of disdain for the teachers, and the girls are noticing it too and they all seem to flock around me. Mad pussy, man. I’m the shit. But then other days it’s like I don’t exist; nobody acknowledges me to my face and I feel like they’re making fun of me behind my back-- when they laugh it’s like they’re laughing at me-- and girls don’t even, like, look at me. None of them except for Leah. We fuck sometimes, but she’s not my girlfriend or anything.
She could be hotter, and she could be peppier, but she’s okay. Fucking worships the ground I walk on. Always asking shit like if I love her. Very insecure. Nice tits, though.
I walk home after school. It’s like six blocks, each one uglier than the one before as income levels sink. The few blocks near ours have homeless people on the corners, holding sharpie-and-cardboard signs. One man on our block always has his dog with him. That’s what gets me. Fucking dogs, man.
Someday I’m gonna be so rich that when I walk past homeless guys I’ll just be handing out hundreds. Making it rain. I’m going to be so rich someday, I swear. Wall Street rich. Donald Trump rich. I’ll like, wear a tux every day, have a different Rolex for each of the 365 days of a year. I’ll be so rich those old money Arwood prep school pieces of shit will be jealous. Instead of spitting on me they’ll have to ask me for loans. So rich I’ll buy Mama her own mansion, and a penthouse for myself. I’ll pay for college for H and shit and everyone around me will be like “Jesse, you’re so cool, you’re so amazing, thank you so much,” and I’ll finally have that awesome on-top-of-the-world feeling. Money does that. Anyone who says money can’t buy happiness is a goddamned liar.
Leah’s the only one I tell this cheesy shit to. Mostly because that’s the kind of shit we do, after we fuck, you know, and we’re lying together in bed (or more often, the janitorial supply closet near the cafeteria) and she’ll ask me dumb sentimental things like what my fears and desires are. I play along. It’s nice-ish, I guess, but it’s the kind of shit I would never talk about with Carlos or nothing. It’s too girly.
Carlos and Ray and I keep track of the girls we bed. Ray keeps the spreadsheets on an excel file in his shitty HP computer, with points added for each “base” and all. I'm winning- 6 home runs. Carlos always says it should be chalked up to my mulatto charm. I always laugh.
Okay. So we got Leah. Rosie. Kelly, who was super drunk when we fucked, which explains why it even happened. Oops. I'm trying to get her again.
I play a game at school. A drinking game. Nalgene full of watered down vodka and my list, and I’m good to go. Take a swig whenever Mrs. Demport wags her finger at us. When Lauren Kelly rolls her eyes. When the class average for the test is under a C. Drink when I catch Dylan Pinkers picking his nose. Drink again when he wipes it under the table. Drink when girls in my gym class use their period as an excuse to get out of running. Drink when Tiffany Mercer tries to twerk. Drink twice if it’s during class. Drink when school lunch is pizza. Drink if it’s those hot dogs kids say are made of rubber. Drink when I fail an assignment. Drink when I get an A. I’m not sure which one happens more often. Drink if Steve Porter is wearing his grody old grey sweatshirt with the Harvard seal on the pocket. Drink once a month when you can spot Hannah Jenkins’ tampon string hanging out of her ultra-mini miniskirt. Drink when someone asks me about the vodka smell on my breath. Drink when you hear a pregnancy rumor. Drink when the school funds don’t cover tissues for the classrooms when my nose runs. Drink for every girl in the hallway wearing leggings and Uggs. Drink when you see someone spit out their gum in the water fountain. When the bathroom reeks of pot. When Rachel Ramirez pulls out her compact and tube of sparkly lip something-or-another to re-apply a thick coat to her mouth. When Cayden Fenwick pulls out that retarded comb thing he keeps in his pocket to flip up his hair at the ends. When the teacher yells at us for packing up before it’s time to go. When the intercom is broken, so our class-end bell becomes the sounds of chairs scraping on the floor in classrooms around us, other kids getting up. When we have a lockdown because so-and-so brought a gun to school. When Katie Marshall brings up her dad’s company. When Eric Pocatella’s horrible pun-ridden jokes fall flat on the floor, no laughter. When lunch tables inexplicably divide themselves by race. When Mr. Yates collects homework I haven’t done. When the hallway is disturbed by the smell of Greg Harbin’s locker. Et cetera, et cetera. I start out with straight vodka. My rule is when the bottle is emptied halfway, I fill the rest with water. And again, if it empties itself halfway once more. At the end of the day I end up more hydrated than hammered.
Sometimes I don’t even use vodka, anyway. I use lemonade. Vodka gives me a headache.
Sheila Parhami’s skirt is way too short today, as always. She rolls the waistband over four times so we can all see that red puckered scar she has up high on her thigh, a leftover from when she and Robby Werdich supposedly got freaky with knives. It’s not even worth hiding the fact that I’m looking at her ass. Those red and green plaid skirts, though, they get me. Carlos and I call them one of the Perks of Catholic School. Knee socks too.
Mandatory church services every two weeks is not one of the Perks of Catholic School. We sit in the pews trying to find something to do, playing hand games like Miss Mary Mack and shit, picking at scabs on our ankles, carving initials into the wooden chair backs with pocket knives brought in from home. Of course H is like the fucking altar boy, always. Perfect, he is. Everybody tells me. Always walking down the halls with his polo tucked in, shoes fucking scuff-less. He’s got a girl, too. Her name’s Tatiana. Tati, your typical really-hot goody two shoes. Tati, pulling in straight A’s and all that shit. Tati, who tells me she has a passion for mission trips, who comes around for dinner once a week and always asks my father how work is, who never rolls up her skirt’s waistband, even though we all wish she would. She sings in church, does those weird call-and-response hymns. She and H, it’s like guaranteed they’re featured on every flyer they produce advertising the school. They’re that beautiful, interracial, godly motherfuckers the school board can’t resist selling whenever they can. When church ends they walk out together, holding fucking hands.
There’s one thing the church is good for- fucking. Perks of Catholic School. Not that H would ever do it, but anyone who’s anyone has had sex in the church; in the pews, in the rosy light of the stained glass, in the confession booths, whatever. I once ate out a bitch in the church. Sat her down on the altar and went at it. My downfall was that I couldn’t control my laughter when she started moaning, “Oh, Jesus”; the irony was too much.
More Perks of Catholic School include having nuns for your teachers, so old they can’t hear you whisper in class. Or being able to drop out of Biology for “religious reasons” with no questions asked. I’m not sure if Religion Class counts as a Perk or not. It’s an easy A, but that shit is boring as anything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the story of the Prodigal Son, or the Lost Sheep, or the Good Samaritan, or the motherfucking Mustard Seed. Only catholics would make you spend weeks learning about the symbolism of mustard seeds.
I wish we would learn the cool bible stories. The old testament ones where God smites people and shit. Like that one where he makes bears maul a group of children to death because they teased a bald guy, or the one where he puts demons in pigs. I wish we learned the Noah’s Ark story as a story of genocide, not a story of hope. People forget that God fucking drowned everybody except Noah and his family.
When I mention this to H he goes fucking apeshit, starts quoting some John 3:16 shit at me, that God loves me and it’s a crime to throw away this gift. Whatever.
After school H volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club. I sleep. On good days I go see Carlos and we smoke joints.
Often people can’t even tell H and I are brothers. Our dad is white and Mama’s black, and our skin colors aren’t a perfect mix of the two, like you would expect. I’m lighter than him, like a coffee with two extra creamers mixed in. My hair curly, his long and lightly waved. I’m long and lanky like our dad, knees and elbows jutting out, while H is bulkier and shorter, shoulders broad and arms strong. The only thing the same about us is our lips; these huge puckered motherfuckers we got from Mama. H doesn’t seem to mind, or else he just doesn’t think about it much, but I’m constantly trying to hide them. Biting them, rolling them inward, whatever.
I even borrowed some of Leah’s concealer makeup shit once to try and hide their dark edges. She laughed when she saw me, giggled,
“Jesus, Jesse, what the fuck is that?”
“It doesn’t look good?”
“It looks like you smeared fucking vanilla ice cream around your mouth. C’mere, let me fix it.” She licks her thumb and holds it, saliva smeared, out to my face. “C’mere.”
I wiggle to get away. “No, stop, I don’t want it.”
She laughs again, breath hot on my face, and wipes her thumb across my mouth. “Did you really think it would work? Look at us, do we look like the same color?” She holds her arm out next to mine, proving she’s right. I’m only a couple shades darker than her, but her shade of tan is different than mine, somehow- hers looks redder compared to my yellowy undertones. She’s also got these little round scars on her arm- burn marks, I guess. Like she puts out her cigarettes by smudging them on her skin instead of on the ground.
“Why do you even hate your lips so much anyway?” She draws my attention away. My face gets hot.
“I don’t know, okay?” Because that’s the truth. “It’s like, girls are supposed to have big lips. Men aren’t. I don’t want to be like a girl.”
Leah smirks. “What’s so bad about girls?” She makes her index finger and middle finger into legs, walks them up my arm. “Besides, I like your lips.” She puts on her best Little Red Riding Hood voice. “Why, Grandma, what big lips you have!”
I laugh a little, put on my Big Bad Wolf voice, say, “All the better to kiss you with, my dear.” Her walking fingers grab my jaw, pull me towards her. She kisses me and I let my mouth relax into hers.
School is like an all or nothing for me, you know? I either get A’s or F’s, and this is somewhat correlated to my interest level in specific subjects but also I just have varying success in different areas. I’m good at science. Or I like it. Either one. Not stupid biology stuff, but physics-- the real science. The science of how stuff works. I like astrophysics, like stars and the universe and shit, but there’s no course for that at SO’s, so I compensate by watching Youtube videos on it. I do this instead of my World History homework at night-- This is why I’m failing World and acing Physics.
Mr. Scherzinger, the ancient Physics teacher, has told me I “show promise.” Whatever that means. He asked me once if I was interested in doing a project with him- writing some scientific article after school about quantum theory. I said I’d think about it, but told him no the next day. I didn’t want to be that kid, you know?
When I’m at school on Friday evening, supposed to be watching H’s basketball game in the gym, Leah and I sneak out to the parking lot. Her idea. She wants to see the stars. There’s a playground out there and we lie on the woodchips, trying not to let them stab our backs too much. Later she will pick the splinters from my back.
So we’re lying on the ground, there, holding hands, looking up at stars through the branches of trees that cower over us, when I hear her crying, and I’m like, whoa whoa whoa. I ask her what the heck’s the matter. She doesn’t know. Fucking girls, man.
I do my best. I grab her closer, let her lie across my chest with tears soaking through my shirt. She looks up at me, doe-like, and the stars she wanted to see glitter in her eyes. I tell her it’s okay. Pat her back and whatever. And eventually her breathing evens out, becomes steady, even when I push her off of me. She’s asleep.
And I see it. Usually I don’t-- but today, under the stars & in the moonlight, it couldn’t be clearer.
She’s beautiful. Goddamn. I know I have to wake her later, but for now I just sit with her and let my chest rise and fall with hers.
H wasn’t always like this. We used to be so close, peas in a pod or whatever. And he would listen to me, too, help me carry out whatever adventures I had planned. We used to pretend like we were spies. I got these walkie-talkies for my eighth birthday, and we’d ride around the block on rusted Razor scooters, whispering cryptic shit into the fake phones. Shit like, “The tired eagle flies west into the sunset” or “The woodpecker is active at dawn” or whatever else we picked up from commercial snippets of spy movies. Man, did we think we were hot shit. And at the end of the day we’d compile our findings into a marble-front composition book with flashlights under my covers, and discuss our conspiracy theories until Mama would come in and make H go back to his room. She’d say it was too late.
Now the closest thing to bonding we have is a head nod in the school hallway. That’s a lie, I guess. We talk sometimes. It’s just not the same is all.
But some nights, summer nights, we’ll both open up our windows, each next to each other’s, and sit on the sills. They’re a couple feet apart, and the drop down is vertical, so we’re separated by the space between so that we can’t see nothing of each other but the legs, dangling down. And even that’s hard because of the darkness. So I let his voice become his whole identity and forget what he looks like.
He’ll grab a bottle of beer from the mini fridge Dad keeps in the basement-- guess there is a little bad boy in him after all-- and we’ll pass it back and forth, taking swigs. We talk about life and death, morality, science, whatever existential shit. Most of the time we just look up at the stars and wonder.
I feel stupid talking about the stars. It’s better to just see them. I don’t know how anyone could look up at the stars and not feel moved, not be awed by how small and how big the stars make you feel at once.
I’ve read that the human eye can see a burning candle flame from 30 miles away, if the conditions are right, and yeah, that seems like a lot-- but think how far away the stars are, in comparison. way the stars are, in comparison. How big would a candle flame have to be for you to be able to see it from trillions of miles away?
I told H once about how people measure how far we are from different stars. They use these things called parallaxes, which is like when you match your finger up with the poster on your wall with one eye closed, and then you close the other eye and see your finger jump across space. The distance between your eyes creates a unique viewpoint from each one, and this is what gives us shit like depth perception. We can tell how far away from us stuff is based on the parallax. And so for like human eyes, which are only inches apart, we only have this parallax-based form of depth perception for objects that are 25 feet or less away from us. But scientists use the parallax effect on a larger scale to see how far away stars are, by taking different pictures of the same stars at different points in the earth’s orbit around the sun and comparing the slight differences. The thing is, I tell H, I wish we could see the parallaxes of the stars with our own eyes. Wish we could see exactly how far away from us they are. Wish we could see the layers and layers of sky placed on each other like phyllo dough, studded with stars in between & piled up to form a thick heaven-slice. Because when we look at the sky, for all we see, the darkness could be a blanket draped over the earth, held up by the tops of the tallest trees, and the stars could be painted on to the flat cloth. It's flat. I want to see the dimension. I want to drown in the depths of an endless universe. I want to know just how small I really am.
Tati’s got it in for me. I don’t really blame her. I fucked her sister. Little thing, too, she was a thick-thighed bubbly freshman. Rosie. Year younger than Tati, two younger than me. She was super naïve. Giggled when I came up behind her at that dance, and didn’t stop when I asked her if she wanted to go outside, get some air. Virgin.
I didn’t mean to, really. It wasn’t supposed to go that far. It was just a little thing, you know, me getting back at H. But the bitch was hot, and years of catholic school had resulted in extreme repressed sexuality. We did it in my car; she got naked, nothing on but those knee socks and mary-janes, so that all I could see was her saccharine-sweet caramel skin.
Carlos is the one who tells me, and it’s uncomfortable because he never even really knew Leah and I were hooking up.
“Yo man, hold up,” is what he said as he ran in the hallway to catch up.
“Okay, you are not going to believe this.” He snorts a little. “You know that chunky blonde chick, Laura or Lena or something?”
I ask, “Leah?”
“Yeah, that’s it. The kind of crazy one. Haven’t you shagged her before?” He punches my shoulder. “You need to get yourself some higher standards. Anyway, word on the street is that she’s dead.”
“Yeah, that’s what I heard.”
I blink. “Dead?”
“I know, man, she always seemed so alive,” Carlos says, laughing at himself.
“I know, man. When was the last time anything this exciting happened at SC’s?”
“Dead.” I shake my head. “Wow.” I apparently can’t handle multisyllabic words.
“Yeah, I guess she killed herself or something. It’s wack.”
“Wack.” I echo.
“Ray told me.”
Carlos makes a face at me. “You good, man?”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” I muster up my best smile. “Just weird.”
“Yeah, for sure. I gotcha, bro.” Carlos smirks, points his two index fingers at me like guns. I forget why we’re friends.
I get a text in third period from Leah’s number. Before I can even click on it to read it, I’m drafting responses in my head: thank god. i was worried bc c had told me some stupid ass rumor he heard about u being hurt. im glad ur okay. And then tentatively, i think i do love u.
When I read it it’s not Leah. It’s her mother. Confirming my worst fears. Or more accurately, my second-worst fears, because Leah’s not dead. She’s comatose.
Her mom, who introduces herself as Shannon, tells me she texted me because I was number one on Leah’s contact list. To be honest I’d never even thought about Leah having a family, probably mostly because she never talked about them.
So this Shannon bitch tells me it seemed like Leah cared about me, and she asks if I’m her boyfriend, to which I have to respond no. I feel like an asshole, though, like I used her. Anyway, Shannon says I can visit Leah in the hospital sometime if I want to. I tell her thanks, that maybe I will go. Secretly I know I’ll never take her up on the offer.
I don’t go to visit her. I don’t text her mom back. I don’t cry at night. I don’t think about her, if I can help it. Nothing inside me has changed. Except for that it has. I feel different in a way I can’t explain, like I’ve been stretched into a fifth dimension that I don’t yet know how to comprehend.
At night I lie awake and look at the ceiling. I realize I don’t know what I’m doing. What I am. What I want to be.
After school I steal someone’s bike left unchained on the rack. I ride home and back, home and back, six times in one day. I try to do it with my eyes closed but I ride off the curb and fall and scrape skin off my knee. Pebbles of gravel stick inside the torn skin. They make divots in my flesh.