One two three four five six seven. Automatic now. She couldn’t even remember when the tic started, but it helped, a bit. One two three four five six seven. Earring, earring, cartilage, tragus, nose, labret, ring. She had it down so that it looked like she was just brushing her hand across her face, like she had an itch somewhere but wasn’t sure where.
Maddie let her finger linger on the ring, slipped onto her third finger as always. She pressed her fingertip into the daisy pattern made of fake jewels and metal, the only part of the ensemble that didn’t fit.
There had been a uniform at Magdala, but even there, her dark lipstick and purple-streaked hair had been enough to make her stand out. She’d re-done the streaks last night over the kitchen sink for the occasion: her first day at public school. She kept the bleach on as long as she could stand it, until her scalp stung and then just a little bit longer, grasping the pink-coral marble counter and holding her breath, trying to count to ten, then ten more. Her ears started ringing before she turned on the tap; she could barely hear her mother in the bedroom crying quietly, a skill Maddie had yet to perfect.
The public school was on the other side of town from everything, from Magdala, from her father’s office, from home. Maddie woke up earlier than she ever had before to make coffee before taking the bus. Her father was already standing at the kitchen table, brushing raisin toast crumbs from his lips. He missed some in the corner. Maddie watched them while he spoke, quivering but not falling, glued to his lip with margarine.
“This school will be good for you.” He cleared his throat and let his eyes settle on her right shoulder, the innocuous place he had found maybe a year ago to look at when he spoke to her. If she got a tattoo – when she got a tattoo – that was where it would go. “It’ll give you a sense of what you have to lose.” His voice fell on the last word. She wondered if he’d read it in a book or had come up with it all by himself.
She didn’t tell him about the crumbs still on his lip when he left. Just before walking out the front door, she cleared his breakfast dish and placed it carefully in the sink, which still smelled faintly of bleach.
The halls of her new school hardly felt like halls – more like conveyor belts for livestock, shoulders pressed up to shoulders, thighs pressed up to thighs. The first few times she felt some boy’s crotch against her butt, she whirled around. The fourth time, she vowed to exchange her old messenger bag for a backpack to wear as a shield. And yet, in spite of all that white noise and all those unfamiliar low voices, she wouldn’t trade it for the carbon-copy rich girls of Magdala’s mahogany halls, the little angels with a questionable sashay surging through their calves and thighs, just this side of pious, though the multi-colored paperclips they lined up along the hems of their red-and-green plaid skirts would beg to suggest otherwise: blue for 1st, green for 2nd, pink for 3rd, yellow for a home run.
At Magdala, the office was at the very front of the building; you couldn’t miss it, as much as she had tried to on numerous occasions, slipping through the emergency exits and hoping that some cigarette smoker had already tripped the alarm, stalking through the phys-ed locker room, though she never changed there, and finding her way into school via the pristine gymnasium. Here, the halls were wide and the doors identical, buttressed with walls of grey-puce lockers, groups of students teeming before them like ants on a sugar cube. She kept her eyes fixed forward, lest she accidentally lock eyes with one of these people who all already knew each other. It was almost impossible to see where the doors were through the swarm, much less guess which one might be the right one. She had half a mind to find the closest bathroom and hole up in a stall, carving feelings into her left forearm with a safety pin… or taking a nap on her knees.
And yet she found herself pressing against the stream of students moving down the hall, so many new and different people that they all looked the same, save one that she saw making better progress than she was by leading with a pointy elbow covered in the mesh material of a long-sleeved black t-shirt that half-hid the tattoo creeping over her shoulder. She had blue hair.
The girl caught her glance for just long enough for Maddie to get up the nerve to stop her.
“Hey. Sorry to bother you…”
“New?” To Maddie’s surprise, the girl flashed an enormous grin.
“Come on; I’m going to the office anyway.”
Maddie trailed the beacon of blue hair as this girl found a way through the mass of bodies; she tried to follow in her wake, finally making it to the other end of the hallway, to a door that led outside. The girl pushed through it; Maddie was thankful for the fresh air.
“It’s quicker this way,” the girl said. “Straight through the quad.”
The “quad” would not have been worthy of that name at Magdala. The pristine diamond of grass at her old school was bordered with flowers that Maddie never bothered to learn the names of. In the spring, girls would lie out on the grass between classes, tanning their legs beneath short uniform skirts and sipping orange juice spiked liberally with vodka out of Minute Maid bottles. She glanced at the groups sitting around the concrete courtyard that served as a quad here, bordered not with flowers but with the backs of the 1970s buildings that would certainly become familiar in a matter of days but that, for now, looked like television stand-ins for a state penitentiary. Perfection in such a setting is for the movies, but Maddie had to admit that she had never seen anything like this before: kids shooting baskets in the solitary hoop that hung netless from a post, a group sitting on picnic tables with so many initials carved into them that they had all become illegible, the benches their footrests, the table itself a support for someone’s phone, from which emanated the tinny sound of a song Maddie didn’t recognize.
But it wasn’t until she saw the group perched on the grassy hill leading towards the highway, sloping up and out of the valley that was the quad, that Maddie’s feet slowed to a stop.
“That’s Angus.” Maddie turned to see the girl smirking as she watched her. She let her eyes flit back to the group – though there were at least ten boys sitting there in a haphazard circle, it was clear which one the girl had meant. Nearly a dozen sets of eyes locked on his lips; Maddie stared too, wished that she could drink up the words that seemed to have them so captivated. If someone had tried to describe his magnetism, she’d have called bullshit in a heartbeat, and yet here she was, the metal toes of her boots facing him, as though he could pull her to him with a wave of his hand.
“Come on, new girl. They’ll be there when we get back.”
The blue-haired girl’s words broke the spell, and Maddie scurried to catch up with her. “What do you mean?”
“They don’t go to class much.”
“So what… they’re stoners or something?”
“You would think so, wouldn’t you?” There was no further explanation. Maddie hesitated, then allowed herself just one more question.
“Who are they?”
She shrugged. “Angus and his guys. Can we move it along here? I’ve got to get to class.”
She pressed a blue button on the wall, and the door slowly, mechanically started to swing itself open. Slowly, slowly – the longer it took to open, the more certain Maddie was that she was going to allow herself to give in to the craving that was bubbling up faster and faster in her chest. As the doors reached their fully opened position, her hands ran through their tic, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and as she pulled her right finger from the daisy ring, she turned her head.
Angus was staring straight at her.
In the office, she had to remind herself that no one knew her yet. They hadn’t seen her coming through once, twice, three times a week, a forgotten homework assignment here, an “offensive” remark there – she’d claim sarcasm or irony or both. A lady with breasts like a shelf upon which rested thick glasses on a gold chain gave Maddie her schedule on a sheet of lime chiffon-colored paper, and that was it: no remark on her clothes or her jewelry or her hair. Maddie wanted to believe that it didn’t matter, that she didn’t care.
She had planned to pay attention in Algebra II, but that was a wash. Her new class was at least two units behind Magdala. She ignored the sound of her father’s voice in her ear, harping about the quality of the education she was losing with her “antics,” and ignored the new teacher, too, who had the annoying habit of sniffing every several seconds as he spoke. Instead, the entirety of the 45 minutes was spent writing a reminder on her thigh through a rip to change her black tights for fishnets tomorrow, doodling in the pages of her notebook and reflecting on who, exactly, this Angus guy thought he was. Never mind that she’d caught him staring at her, though that alone would normally have been more than enough to set her off if he’d been close enough to hear her.
She still remembered the first time, the first time she’d united the heavy eyeliner she’d practiced in her room and rubbed off with a cotton swab before dinner, the fishnet tights and the little leather skirt she found in a basement store at the mall. She’d stared at herself in the mirror with her newly dyed hair – black, that time; it had taken her a few more months to go to purple – and smiled at how little she recognized her face. She remembered what it had been like, feeling the stares of people pulsing on her back, men whose desire was clear in their voices and in the things they chose to say, men she could refuse without even a word; a glare was all it took. And for the first time, that feeling of spilling outside herself, that feeling of homesickness even though she was sitting on her very own bed, it all disappeared, and anger was all that remained. Anger that she let simmer in the pit of her stomach. Anger that kept her smiling as soon as she was sure no one could see.
And yet that wasn’t even what made Angus so infuriating. Angus and his guys. Why did he need guys? Why was he the head of whatever stoner council was holding summit on the top of the grassy knoll?
After Math, there was English, and after English, there was History. Maddie trudged from room to room, spending a full five minutes of each period deciding whether the teacher would be worth listening to at some point, and the other 40, drawing pictures in her notebook and letting that familiar hot tar of anger build. By now it had nearly dissociated itself entirely from Angus and was turning into an independent boiling mass. Anger was more than welcome until it started to become stale, which it did around lunchtime. And stale anger, Maddie knew by now, could be quelled by only one thing.
She streamed into the line and grabbed two small cartons of chocolate milk, pressing forward to where the hot meals were. When she got to the fries, she loaded a pile of them onto a lunch plate, reserving a second for the hamburger that they were meant to accompany. Yes, 45 minutes of slowly chewing through the pile of shoestring potatoes would be more than enough to numb everything about this first day, the whispers and the looks and the echo of her father’s voice. She would get the hang of the new rhythm eventually; for now, the soporifics were key.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that the blue-haired girl had reached the head of the line. Maddie looked down, but not before she had been waved over, wild gestures indicating the table she should join as soon as she had paid for the mountain of food she was planning to consume. Though Maddie craved the comfort of being alone with as much ketchup as she could finagle out of the lunch ladies, she nodded and waved back, continuing to pass through the line so that she could grab a pudding cup.
“$10.49,” the lunch lady said. Maddie counted out 10 dollars and passed her two quarters, waiting the extra second for the penny back.
Blue-haired girl was waving her over again. Maddie slid her tray onto the table and took a seat.
“I’m an idiot. I don’t think I asked your name this morning,” she said. Maddie had already begun digging into her fries, so she swallowed as quickly as she could and managed to retain some dignity as she gave her name.
Maddie didn’t hear as Maria introduced the rest of the people sitting with them; Angus had walked in with the rest of his group and taken a seat at a table in the middle of the room. Maddie watched his eyes flit across the crowded cafeteria and pause on her. She pushed her tray away and stared at the stained plastic table.
“What is up with that guy?” she muttered, more to herself than to anyone else, but that didn’t stop a few of the heads at the table from swiveling to look. She was struck by the vague realization that maybe she should have waited before casting disparaging remarks in front of people she didn’t even know.
“What do you mean?” Maria asked, reaching for a French fry from Maddie’s tray. Maddie shifted it a little bit and poured a thin trail of ketchup all over the plate.
“He’s been staring at me all day.” Saying it out loud made her feel vaguely proud, but when she looked around the table, she realized that she was wrong.
“He does that,” one of the other girls said, a light smile playing at her lips. She dressed pretty mainstream; Maddie wondered why Maria was even friends with her.
“He just… gets along with everyone,” Maria said.
Not with me, Maddie decided silently.
After school, Maddie got the first bus out, even though most of the kids seemed to have gravitated back towards the quad. She lodged her earbuds firmly in her ears, and while she felt the seat next to her depress, she didn’t turn to see who was sitting there. The phantom body got off the bus before she did – hers was one of the last stops.
She felt nearly naked without the weight of her boots rooting her to the ground, but if she kicked them off in the mudroom, no one could hear her coming up the stairs. Success was disappearing behind the closed door of her bedroom before anyone could ask her how her day had been.
She dropped her bag on the floor of the room that her mother still wouldn’t let her change from the pink flowered wallpaper and bedspread of her childhood, chosen before Maddie even had a personality. When she was still invisible.
She noticed the picture hadn’t returned to the bookshelf, a testament to those years: Maddie young and dirty blonde, bangs hanging into her eyes, with two other little girls shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder. Maddie was on the outside edge, her right arm obscured by the pink picture frame. Those girls were still at Magdala, but Maddie hadn’t spoken to them, much less wrapped her arm around their shoulders, in years. She and her mother had been staging a silent war for months, Maddie taking the picture down every evening and coming home from school to find it restored to its place. It wasn’t there today; Maddie wasn’t sure why the victory felt hollow.
She took new books out of her backpack and lay facedown on the bed to do her homework. She could remember a time that simultaneously felt not so long ago and as if it happened to a completely different person, lying here with other girls, people she would have called friends, maybe, except that something had happened between 10 and 14, like an announcement Maddie had missed, and suddenly she found herself alone on Friday and Saturday nights, hearing about a party or a dance on Monday morning that she hadn’t even known would happen. She didn’t even know she should be thinking about boys and hair and makeup yet.
The first time, she cried. “I don’t know why they don’t like me,” she whined to her mother’s back as she did the dinner dishes; it made Maddie cringe to remember it now, as it had made her mother cringe. She dried her hands on her apron and handed Maddie a tissue, pinched between two fingers, before plunging her hands back into the soapy suds.
“Try being a little friendlier,” her mother had offered as a solution. Never mind that friendliness was a death sentence at Magdala. Maddie was done smiling and hoping someone would notice.
She hadn’t heard the door open through the music she was still blasting into her headphones, but the light changed and she turned to see her father standing in the doorway. She pulled one earbud out and waited, the music tinny and distant from the tiny speaker pinched between two black fingernails.
He cleared his throat and tried to start a sentence twice. She drew on the awkwardness, forcing her face to stay stony and severe.
“It’s dinnertime,” he finally said. “Take those things out. I shouldn’t have to come up here to get you.”
He left the door open. She waited five minutes before going downstairs. He had already cleared his plate and was disappearing back into his office, where he would hide in the enormity of a La-Z-Boy chair and the somber bass of Beethoven. Maddie pulled a chair out, making the legs squeak against the linoleum. She picked the skin off a piece of roast chicken.
Her mother cleared her throat cautiously. “How was your first day?” she asked. Maddie shrugged. Her mother sliced a round of steamed carrot in two.
Maddie’s teachers had started calling on her, and while she didn’t want to be pegged as the smart kid, she also couldn’t bear shrugging when she clearly knew the answer. Her English teacher, especially, seemed relieved. His open-ended questions didn’t have to be followed by silence if Maddie was in the room. She sat in the back and drew stars on her notepaper, but she begrudgingly answered when he asked questions about Hamlet’s motivations, Ophelia’s sanity.
As she was shoving her papers and books into her backpack, she felt a tap on her shoulder. “Hey,” a boy said. He sat near her in the back of the room when he showed up, which wasn’t often.
“I’m Pat,” he said.
“Yeah, I know.”
Maddie frowned at his familiarity and finished filling her backpack, starting to move towards the classroom’s exit.
“I was just wondering – do you have notes from last week?”
Pat’s eyes bulged. She realized how what she’d said sounded, and even though she didn’t know why she cared, she started backpedaling. “I already studied this book. I haven’t really been taking notes.” She hesitated before adding: “Sorry.”
“No biggie,” he said as he scratched his scalp between two dreadlocks. Maddie wondered how he washed them. She let herself linger, momentarily, on the reaction she’d get if she dreaded her hair.
“Angus mentioned you were pretty good in this class.”
“What?” she said; she could hear ice in her voice, but she didn’t care this time. She’d never seen Angus in this class. How would he know she was good at anything? The idea gave her the creeps.
“I guess the teacher read your paper out loud in his section,” Pat offered as an explanation. “He said he liked it.”
“Why don’t you get his notes?” She had gotten used to walking down the halls here, but not side-by-side with someone. It was hard to move forward with a purpose and swivel her head to talk to Pat. One two three four five six seven. She accidentally elbowed someone walking towards her on four, but she didn’t break stride until her finger hit the daisy ring.
“Oh, you know,” Pat said. “He’s not much of a note-taker either.”
“I didn’t think that any of you guys went to class.”
Pat shrugged and offered a half-laugh. Maddie wondered why she’d said anything at all. “We go sometimes. We just have more interesting things to do.”
Maddie turned her head to look at him and nearly crashed into the person coming towards her. “Do you have a sec?” she asked.
He seemed surprised but nodded and led her out into the nearly empty quad. He stood, facing her, and waited.
“So… these interesting things…” she let her voice trail off and tried to see how Pat would respond. He frowned, but he didn’t say anything. He wasn’t going to make this easy. “Any chance I could get in on the fun?”
“I… don’t know what you mean,” he said.
She sighed, tried to remember the way Kelly’s brother had said it but couldn’t. “Are you selling?”
“Whoa, whoa…” Pat took a few steps back and laughed. “No need to interpret the dreads the wrong way.”
“It’s not just the dreads,” Maddie said, but she could feel her face flushing.
“Look. It’s really not what you think. We just talk about stuff, and most of the time, it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than what’s going on in there.” He hiked his thumb back to the school building. Maddie was vaguely aware that she was missing the first five minutes of history.
“Just… stuff. Useful things. More useful than Hamlet, anyway. Angus’s got… a unique perspective, I guess.” Pat clamped one hand on her upper arm; Maddie stiffened. “Thanks anyway,” he said.
He had disappeared back into the school building before Maddie found the wherewithal to mutter, “No problem.”
“You should come out tonight. There’s a party in Green Meadow.” Maria downed the last of her bottle of Coke Zero and chucked it into the trash bin behind them. When she made the shot, the rest of the kids at the lunch table whooped. Maddie had gotten used to eating with them every day, but even though she tried as best she could to stay invisible, Maria was constantly drawing attention to her, trying to make her appear.
“Your sworn enemy won’t be there.”
She looked up and saw that Maria was smiling. Maddie was sure she was mocking her a bit, but she also knew it wasn’t worth it to protest. After that first day, she hadn’t said anything bad about Angus, but her silence every time he was brought up must have been noticeable. To be fair, they did bring him up fairly often, especially Angela, the pretty, mainstream blonde. She and Maria had been friends since kindergarten, and Angela worked on the yearbook staff.
“Guess who’s going to be most well-liked this year?”
Everyone laughed and no one answered, but Angela seemed like she was waiting for some kind of response, so Maria gave it to her.
“Angus.” Maddie noticed Maria glancing at her. She pretended to be very invested in plunging a pointed straw into her carton of chocolate milk.
“Of course, he’ll refuse,” Angela said, brushing her hair over her shoulder and dipping a cucumber slice into a small puddle of ranch dressing. “He’s so above things like that.”
“I think that’s the wrong word,” Duncan said, but he didn’t offer a replacement. Maddie would secretly spend her entire next period trying to find a better word, and then fifteen minutes in the bathroom after regretting having spent that much time thinking about him at all.
She kept her thoughts to herself; she stayed silent at Maria’s suggestion of enemy status as well. But somehow, Maria could read her; it was disconcerting, but Maddie tried to brush it off.
“Come on,” Maria said. “Come. Angus’s not into parties anyway.” Maddie wondered if he was above them or something else entirely.
Maria passed her a red Solo cup of beer nearly the second they walked through the door. She was wearing a spiderweb shirt that hardly existed, seemed nearly painted onto her shoulders and arms. Maddie certainly hadn’t gotten the message about the change in dress code; now that she was done with uniforms, she realized that she didn’t have much to choose from, and a second coat of kohl was the only change she’d made. Maddie could see that the tattoo she had glimpsed through most of Maria’s school outfits extended all the way down her side and back. It wound around itself with gauzy fingers, like ivy on the side of a brick wall. It stretched in all directions, extending from some secret root someplace that, somehow, remained hidden beneath the shiny black nylon of Maria’s waistband.
“I’ve been thinking about getting some ink done,” Maddie said as she looked at it, wondering briefly if the statement made her seem like she was trying too hard, but Maria didn’t seem to notice.
“I’ve got a good place. I’ll take you. Have you got a design yet?” Maria asked.
“I can never decide on one. How did you pick yours?”
“It’s from a painting Angus did.”
Maddie stared into the bottom of her cup, that now-familiar feeling so close and yet so far from anger starting to ooze up into her belly again. She took another sip of beer and somehow found the courage in swallowing it to ask a question she’d been considering for weeks.
“Are you two…” She’d wanted to ask it of all the girls, Angela especially. She’d been listening in on conversations for hints and come up empty-handed each time. She nearly regretted letting the words tumble out, but Maria smiled and allowed Maddie to drop off the end of her sentence.
“He’s friends with everyone.” A non-answer to a non-question.
Maria noticed some other friends and left Maddie standing by the keg. She glanced around the room, noticing everyone else talking and laughing, but she couldn’t bring herself to approach anyone. One two three four five six seven. She let her free hand run through the movements between periodic sips of beer, wondering how many she could get away with before someone noticed. She wondered why she’d even bothered coming: her first real party, and all she could think of was how little she wished she were here.
Forty long minutes passed before Maddie finally allowed herself the release she had been waiting for. Seven more felt like an eternity in the line for the bathroom, and finally, she was alone. She sat on the closed toilet seat and pulled a bobby pin from the depths of her long hair. Slowly, she began to scratch into the raw, thin part of her inner arm, watching as it bloomed pink, then red. She let herself descend into the mantra that, by now, had become so familiar that she barely heard it.
Most people don’t feel like this. Most people are just fine. And the ones who aren’t just fine have reasons why they’re not just fine. They have tragedy. They have pain. They have real suffering. And here I am. Just a mess for no reason. Just a mess for the sake of being a mess.
Her arm was a mess too, by now, which was some comfort, but soon, the banging on the bathroom door became too much. She carefully rolled her sleeve down and slipped out into the darkness. The long walk home might be enough to get her to sleep tonight.
Outside, the air was crisp and cool; fall had come right on time this year. She listened as the heavy soles of her boots met pavement with an empty thud, punctuated by a leaf crackling here and there. The repetition was soothing, the metronome of her own body doing what she let it do when she was too tired to think.
She was passing the park when she felt it. Eyes boring into her from behind. Her hand was already in her pocket; she felt her first and middle fingers grip her keys, hoping that she’d be quick enough to get them into her assailant’s eye before he got her first, trying not to think of whether feeling the metal meet the semi-solid of an eyeball would be satisfying or horrible or both.
But she didn’t see an assailant. Instead, when she slowly turned, she saw Angus, Angus and his guys, sitting in the park in such an improbable way that it was almost as if they’d been cut and pasted from the quad.
“Hello,” Angus said. He didn’t call it, or yell it, just said it, but somehow it was enough to reach her ears. She realized that it was the first time she had heard his voice. How was that possible?
The other guys looked at one another; none of them spoke to her or even looked at her.
“You go to school with us, right?” Angus asked.
“Come sit. We’re just talking.”
“I should get home,” she answered, but she made no move in either direction.
As Maddie approached the bit of grass, she noticed glances being exchanged amongst the others: Angus’s guys. They said nothing.
“Pat, move over a bit. Make space.”
Pat stared at Angus for a moment, searching for the joke before obeying, tossing dreadlocks over his shoulder as he slid along the grass. He hugged his knees to his chest as Maddie took the spot he had occupied. He didn’t look at her.
“What’s your name?” Angus asked. The six inches between them felt cottony and strange, like static on a balloon. She wanted to reach out and touch him, just to be sure he was real, but she didn’t.
“Nice to meet you, Maddie.” He held out his hand, as if he knew, as if he could read her mind. How strange. And yet she so wanted to take it.
She placed her hand in his and let him fold his fingers around hers. He held on without shaking it, smiled as he looked into her eyes; she watched as his scanned back and forth, reading her face, though she tried so hard to keep nothing there. She realized that he had already known her name when he’d asked for it.
He finally released her hand from his grasp, turned her palm up and ran his fingertips to the edge of her sleeve. He pushed it up only an inch or two, let his fingers graze the tracks, her letter to herself, her reminder of who she was.
“What’s this?” he asks, softly. She briefly wonders if anyone else can hear him.
He places both hands over the marks and smiles at her, a cautious smile, knowing. She wants to shake her hair into her face, but she finds herself unable to move. “You have to learn to be kind to yourself.”
If she could will anything into existence in this moment, it would be a backhoe, to scoop each and every one of Angus’s guys up one by one and take them somewhere else.
Instead, she stares. She looks at Angus and slowly pulls her arm away.
He frowns, but somehow, he manages to keep a smile, somewhere. “How else can you be kind to anyone else?”
She hears the rumors the next day. They fade into her consciousness; she isn’t even sure how she hears them, except that when Maria tells her, in the lunch line, she already knows.
“Everyone’s saying that you hooked up with Angus.”
Maria says it matter-of-factly, like saying that everyone says that it looks like rain. It wouldn’t bother her, usually, but it does. How could they not see how wrong they are?
“He’s not like that.”
Maria smiles. “You talked to him.”
She feels doubt washing over her. After that one sentence, did he say anything to her? What did they even talk about? She’s not sure how long she stayed, except that when she finally did leave, the horizon was tinged with purple-grey and her makeup had rolled from her face in a deluge of saltwater that Angus didn’t call attention to or seem to mind.
Maria can’t stop smiling. “That’s all it takes.”
When they leave the lunch line, Maddie sees him, sitting with his guys at the same table as yesterday. A space is empty next to him. She smiles at Maria before going over to take it. She barely notices as the guys squirm in their seats as she takes hers.
“Hello,” Angus says.
They eat in silence; every once in awhile, Angus talks, and they all listen. No one speaks to Maddie.
It’s nearly the end of the period before Pat, who is sitting at the opposite end of the table, looks at Angus and asks the question. Maddie wonders how it was decided that Pat would be the one to voice what they’ve all certainly been thinking.
“Dude. Maybe we should… talk about having a girl here?”
She is vaguely aware of the fact that this sort of comment would have made her mad, before, but somehow, Angus’s light laugh as he takes her hand in his makes any anger she might have felt disappear. She couldn’t have understood yesterday. If she really thinks about it, she isn’t sure that she understands now, but she knows. The truth whirls around her, omnipresent. She’s sad for those here who have never known it, a feeling so foreign to her yesterday that she doesn’t have a name for it.
“You’re going to have to get used to it, Pat,” Angus says.
“But why her?”
Pat throws her a wounded glance, like a dog who knows he’s about to get his nose rubbed in his mistake. She wishes she could get up and hug him, explain it all to him. But he wouldn’t understand, not yet. He has no idea that he’s blind.
“She gets me,” Angus says. He glances at Maddie, and she feels that heat bloom inside her, the warmth that started last night, started at the place where his thumb brushed her wrist bone and grew from there, so that now it’s in her stomach, like a shot of whiskey, like fire, like the sky.
“I’m gonna get another Coke. Does anyone want anything?” Angus asks as he stands, but no one answers. He walks like a cowboy, his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans, his knees turned out slightly. The cafeteria ladies smile as he approaches; he’s got that all-American apple pie look about him that’s almost comical in its charm.
Maddie stabs her overcooked chicken breast with her plastic fork; it barely makes a dent. She reaches for the knife and starts sawing into it, trying very hard to forget that she knows that Pat’s eyes are still boring into her. She wonders if he’s thinking what so many must be thinking, that when Angus offered to walk her home after their meeting on the hill, that he must have spent the night, or that she must have at least offered it. That’s what people think of her, her own parents, probably, even though she can’t say what that sort of touch must feel like.
But she knows others. Like this one, a slow creep under the long sleeve of a cotton t-shirt, a familiar gnawing. The first day is pain; the second is itch. She prefers pain, but if she bleeds every day it turns infected and hot and fiery. You have to deal with itch to have pain.
She presses the tines of her plastic fork even further into her chicken breast, tries to make her thoughts make the sense they’d made just a moment ago. Pain is no good. You must be kind. But why, again? She doesn’t remember. She looks up and sees that the other guys are taking their trays from the table, throwing what’s left in the trash and heading towards the hallway, towards whatever class they have next. Angus’s backpack is still slung over the back of his chair, but he hasn’t finished paying for his Coke.
She rubs the palm of her hand over the material of her long-sleeved shirt, trying to soothe the itch without scratching, without bleeding. Be kind. But why? She can’t remember.
The chicken breast is blurry; more saltwater falls silently. She has to move, has to find a place to hide before the saltwater takes the makeup with it, but where, and how, with everyone in the room watching her?
She feels a hand on her shoulder; with a jerk of his chin, Angus indicates an emergency exit. He presses the door open; no alarm sounds.
They’re back in the quad, but it’s empty now. The second bell has rung; she can feel the vibrations lingering in her ears.
“You’ll be late to class,” she says, pressing her back against the cool concrete of the school building and sinking to the ground. He slides down to sit next to her. He lets his knee touch hers, but all she can think of is the itch of her skin.
“How come…” Her voice has that sound of sticky cotton and water, the one her mother forbids. I can’t understand you when you use that voice, Mom would say, sometimes, as Maddie tried to choke down tears. She tries to clear it.
“How come…” Angus echoes. He waits.
“How come it feels so easy to be perfect when you’re there, and as soon as you’re gone, it all goes away?”
She doesn’t look at his face. She’s too afraid of what she’ll find there. The words in the air sound ridiculous and childish. She gets used to the sound and rhythm of his breathing; when he inhales to speak, she holds her breath and wishes she could press her back hard enough against the wall to sink right into it and disappear.
“What do you mean, perfect?” he asks.
“What I say,” she says, and then she regrets it, the harshness of her voice, the simplicity of her answer.
“That’s too easy,” he says. “What do you like about being around me?”
It could be, should be a haughty thing to say. She wants to roll her eyes and make some sort of derisive comment, but nothing comes to mind, and she knows she wouldn’t want to say it anyway. Be kind, be kind. A second chance.
“That feeling. Like… it’s calm. Like it’s easy to know what to say and how to be. There’s no… there’s none of that… need to say things just so people won’t stab you in the back. Or judge you. You just… know. What to say. How to be.”
She lets her words tumble back into her ears, lets them marinate as words said, not words to say. And still, Angus says nothing.
“What do you call that?” she asks.
He shrugs. “People call it a lot of things.”
“But what do you call it?”
She feels his shoulder shrug against hers. “Grace, maybe.”
Not a complicated word, but she couldn’t define it if she tried.
Five letters. One syllable. A first grade spelling word, and she doesn’t really know what it means.
A white object enters her line of sight. A cigarette, pinched between thumb and forefinger – an offering. She hadn’t even noticed that Angus had lit his own. It doesn’t fit. Why doesn’t it fit?
“You smoke?” she asks.
“People like to think I’m… perfect.” He grins as he picks her word out of the air. The nail of his thumb is a nearly perfect square. She takes the cigarette, lights it and inhales. It burns up what’s left of the cotton tears.
“May I tell you a story?” he asks.
She would laugh. She could laugh. But she doesn’t. Mother may I? Yes you may.
“It’s the story of this… girl. This girl I know. When she was 16, something happened to her. Something that no one ever would have expected of… this particular girl.”
“What was it?”
The sound of her own voice cuts through the air; she vows to say nothing more. Angus continues as though she hadn’t spoken.
“She had to make a choice. Let people believe a lie about her, or tell a truth that she knew no one would believe. She had no control over what others were going to think. And so she had to choose. One lie or another: the truth – perceived as a lie – or a lie that everyone else had already taken as truth.”
“What did she choose?” She doesn’t know why it seems so important. A vague story that would have infuriated her on any other day, would have turned her stomach into that tar pit of boiling ire. But not today. Today the answer is more important than the events leading up to the question.
“She chose the truth,” Angus says. Of course she did. That’s what you’re supposed to do. “But… she could have just as easily chosen the lie.”
The paradox muddles her thoughts. She feels her fingers move up to one ear. One. She stops. “But which was the right thing to do?” She can’t remember the last time she didn’t feel like a lie. A costume. A character. But not being a lie feels like a lie all the same.
Angus shrugs. “That’s not the question. You have to make the choice that you can make every day for the rest of your life.”
Maddie makes herself still.
“The story is about my mother,” he says to his shoes. “I was born when she was in high school.”
Angus sucks hard on the filter and flicks the cigarette into the middle of the quad in a perfect arc. She can hear it hit concrete where it lands, smoldering from red to grey.
“Grace. Faith. Perfection, if you like…” – she can hear the smile in his voice even though she can’t look. “You choose it. You make the choice every day.”
“All of them.” He smiles. “Choosing to believe. Choosing to be kind. Choosing to be happy.”
She glares at the steel toes of her boots. She’s glad they don’t show her reflection.
“That’s what you chose.”
She feels as he breathes next to her. Waits. She’s sure he’d wait with her all day if he had to.
“It was so easy yesterday.”
“The first time it’s easy. Then it gets harder.”
She presses her right finger into the daisy ring until she can feel it leave its mark in her skin.
“Does it get easier again?”
Angus chews on his bottom lip and frowns as he stares at an ant crossing the valley between his two white sneakers. It’s not an act; she’s sure it’s not an act. And yet… what’s she’s seen thus far of Angus, what he likes people to see, it’s not everything there is. She’s surprised by how relieved she is.
“I’ll let you know,” he says, finally. He stands.
He gives her his hand and pulls her to her feet.
Emily Monaco is a born-and-raised New Yorker based in Paris. After pursuing a Masters degree in 19th century French literature at the Sorbonne — and many years of trying — she has come to the conclusion that she will likely never be French.
She has since devoted herself full-time to writing about food, drink and culture shock for various publications and on her blog, Tomato Kumato. You can find more of her writing at EmilyMMonaco.com. She also offers guided tours of Paris’ food, wine, and literary haunts, with a particular penchant for all things Victor Hugo.