Author: pixy-dizzy PM
Pen is not earth mother. And the boy is not gentle. But he is lovely and broken and if she could stop being a chickenshit she could call him up and ask him to take her to Casablanca. This is how the world begins.Rated: Fiction M - English - Words: 9,872 - Reviews: 112 - Favs: 181 - Follows: 6 - Published: 02-23-08 - Status: Complete - id: 2479204
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A/N: WARNING: RATED M FOR LANGUAGE. Just to warn you. If you're really offended by it then you probably shouldn't read this. But if you're pretty okay with it, proceed. :) This is kind of different from other things I've done. But I had a great time writing this. I haven't tried this hard in a while. So. Enjoy. (Hopefully.)
Pen's trembling finger shakes above the green call button on her cellphone, and she feels her heart threaten to pulse out of its fragile cage of bones and sinew. She thinks fiercely to herself, all gritted teeth and throat clogged with saliva, He is only a boy, he is only a boy, he is only a fucking boy.
She closes her phone with a snap.
Closes her eyes, too, and tries to breathe again, but her breath comes short and her heartbeat doesn't slow.
Opening it again, barely registering the wallpaper of her and Boris making kissy faces into the camera, immediately pressing the button to access her address book. Presses the '2' three times. Presses her down arrow once. Is embarrassed by how instinctual the action has become after many failed attempts. Her gaze traces the type of his name, and she involuntarily sucks in a breath again.
How is she going to talk to him if she can't even breathe while considering the possibility?
Her finger hovers over the green call, the go, the ignition. It actually touches the small pad. One errant finger twitch and she could find herself listening to the sound of ringing, unable to take back the action. She is torn between not having regrets and…not having regrets.
Feeling stupid, she practices out loud.
"Hey, dipshit!" Her voice jars the quiet. No, no, she can't do this. She's not strong enough. She's not that girl. She's stuck waiting, always waiting, like her namesake. She is faithful and she is true but for fuck's sake she can't move her finger that extra millimeter (and gravity makes it so easy for her, too) to call a boy to say hi.
Women gained the right to vote eighty years ago. And they gained respect—or have they? She wonders why it is so permissible to dismiss a woman because she is a cunt, but get scraped across the fire pit of you dare call someone a chink or a fag or a nigger. It's all still the words of contempt and rapes and murders and crimes against fucking humanity. –They gained respect, she is told, in the 1980s. It may have been the shoulder-pads. But this is a role reversal she can't do, and she feels like the burden of thousands of years of fighting to be on the same plane as man tumbling around her ears.
Someone once told her that creation stories are all about putting the woman away, because man needed some way—a big way—to verify his position of dominance, to justify it to subsequent generations. Man is the sky and woman is the earth, buried in the earth, hidden beneath the earth, Persephone trapped in the underground. The spirit reaches the heavens while the ground is the vessel for the earthly body. Woman nurtures but man creates. It is from man that all things begin. This was the story for a very long time.
Pen feels this now, heart-heavy, as she closes her phone again for the fourth time, and waits for him to call her. This is unlikely, she knows, because it's not like she has explicitly told him to call her, and their relationship is not one where the one can call the other just to talk. (But oh, she wants it to be. In the quiet late hours of the night, when her house is so still that the silence itself seems muffled, she sometimes imagines whispering to him about her childhood, their sleepy sentences making the vast space between them warm.)
But now, as she feels pulled in all directions, she cannot make that leap. She is Eveline on the docks, white-knuckled, paralyzed between going and leaving. It is not so much pride—let him show me how much he wants this—as cowardice.
She throws her phone on the bed and goes for a jog, 70 percent dissatisfied, and the rest of her horribly relieved.
He is her best friend's older brother and sometimes she hates him. She hates him for the way Boris idolizes him and silently asks for his approval in all the major decisions (and sometimes the minor decisions) he makes. She hates him for the way he is so oblivious to the power he holds over his younger brother, and the thoughtlessly cruel things he will say or do to hurt him.
Before she'd ever met Connor, Boris told her how his older brother was the first person he'd come out to, and how Connor had laughed hysterically. And then when he'd seen Boris's face, like a kicked puppy, Connor had swung his arm back and punched his too-pretty right eye. And Boris hadn't cried. Pen thinks she would have, but Boris is much stronger than anyone gives him credit for, and he had just wobbled on his feet and stared back at Connor with something a little like betrayal.
Connor, Boris had told her, was just really quiet for a bit. And that scared Boris, because Connor is the type of person who runs his mouth off constantly and gets in shit for it all the time. And then he had said to Boris very softly, "This world is full of fuckholes and you're too good to have to be ruined by it. So I did it for the world. And I love you very much. I love you so much."
She thinks Connor is a shitface.
And she hates him for being good. Because shitfaces should remain one-hundred percent irredeemable shitfaces, so that people can dislike them in peace. She finds his occasional cleverness objectionable. She is appalled by his compassion. She resents him for her feelings.
It was her fault they'd ever spoken, though. Her fault that they'd shared the same breathing space at the same time. Her fault that she'd gotten her period at Boris's house, that she'd sent Boris off to buy her Midol; her fault that she'd only then realized that she had no tampons or pads, and her fault that she'd had to ask Connor to get some from his parents' bedroom.
So their first conversation had been about blood.
He'd screamed like a little girl when he'd warily entered the bathroom to her cries for help, and saw her predicament, waving up at him from the few drops splattered on the bathroom floor. She'd wanted to die of mortification.
-You're not fucking serious, - he said.
-Oh, trust me, - she replied from the toilet seat, her stained cotton panties around her ankles. Her oversized shirt had covered her womanly bits, and that was all she had to be grateful for at that point.
She watched him look around the bathroom as if seeing it for the first time, and then he blurted,
-This is disgusting.
And she had exploded, ka-boom, human bomb on display. Erratic hormones and her mother turned her into something else. Her mother had always wanted to see herself reflected in her daughter, and oh, if only her mother could see her now.
-It's my fucking period, okay? This is where you came from, you piece of shit. You lived in the blood of your mother for nine months. You were nourished and grown and given fingernails by that blood. That blood is your blood. This blood is in you. – She'd pointed at the drops on the floor, so angry that she was crying. But she felt somehow powerful with her words, even though she was nesting a toilet bowl and had to look up at him, and even though snot was coming unchecked out of her nose, she was crying so hard. –Fuck, you ungrateful piece of shit.
He'd turned around and left, and came back a long ten minutes later with a package in his hand. She felt him step slowly to her, his bare feet making no noise on the hard tile. He uncurled her half-clenched palm and pressed the tampon in it, then closed her fingers around the cylinder.
She didn't look up, even when she heard the sounds of him scratching head awkwardly, and heard him say,
-I'm sorry I'm an insensitive piece of shit. But don't ever call me ungrateful, you effing lunatic.
That was when she remembered through her selfish PMS-induced haze that Boris's mom had died two years ago. Because sometimes Pen forgot too, and sometimes when she smelled burning cookies she remembered Boris's mom too.
-I'm sorry. - She said in a strangled breath after a painful second. I'm sorry for judging you. I'm sorry for screaming like a crazy woman at you. I'm sorry I forgot. I'm sorry I made you steal tampons from your dead mother.
-Make sure you wipe up the blood when you're done. – Was all he said. And then he left.
And there was not a gap between them anymore. She didn't feel the alienating sense of disconnect she got sitting next to strangers when it came to him anymore. And here is the thing about Pen that Pen knows. She feels the constant need to be independent and discover things on her own, but she needs—she desperately needs—people to fall back on. She is a barnacle and she clings to her relationships like they are lifelines, no matter what she does to try to change her character, to make herself a less neurotic and insecure version of her self. So by so suddenly half-filling the chasm that exists between all human beings, between her and Connor, was ensuring that their eyes would every-so-often meet and acknowledge each other's irises and pupils when she went over to Boris's house.
In a way she misses the alienation. One tenuous thread of human connection, and pain has access to your line, and Connor is so very good at it. If she could close herself off…
(good fences make good neighbors)
He says horrible, pitiless things like they are what form bridges over the river. Like words can fill up holes, no matter what sorts of words they are. The badder the better, because they take up more space in the proverbial emptiness. She knows that people react differently to grief, but she has heard stories about him for as long as she has known Boris, and she thinks that this is inherent.
She doesn't believe in cruel to be kind. She believes in Hamlet, her tortured prince, her clever madman, her anguished philosopher, but Connor is not—cannot possibly be—him. The unremitting glow of her phone mocks her. She feels yellow sweat staining the armpits of her white sports bra the color of old lace. To be or not to be? To do or not to do? Pen, Pen, will you leap into the vast void that is and ever will be—will you be braver than your prince, will you threaten yourself with the unknown?
(creation only comes after nothingness exists, haven't you seen the patterns?)
Wandering marks her years. Her mother told her that back when her life was first beginning in the womb of her mother, her parents (and Pen, the fetus version) used to travel. They were both businesspeople, but they were both in love, so they arranged it so that they would go to the same places at the same time. This was no easy feat to accomplish when the globe seemed to take up so much space compared to their tiny bodies. The few times they were apart, exotic spices turned to sawdust in their mouths, and ancient palaces were only heaps of old stones.
So it's in her blood. She will always be cursed with wanderer urges and itchy feet, the fungus of nomads.
Connor told her that this was in her head when she happened to say something to this effect when she was watching a Travel Channel episode on his and Boris's big screen television on a cloudy day, typical for their rainy springs. It was the kind of day that people kill themselves to; it was the reason that Seattle had a higher suicide rate than any other city in the nation. The place the travel guide was artificially enthused about was all lush foliage and exotic fauna. It was painful in its oversaturated coloration. It made the gray day seem grayer.
-It's not in my head, - she tightly corrected him, attempting to put a tone of higher indignation into her voice, but his apathy that day was disconcertingly and unusually contagious.
-Yes, it is, - he retorted snobbishly. -What you're talking about is running away. Fuck wandering. That's just semantics. You want to run away, not this romantic obsession with exploring the fucking dimensions of the earth.
-It's not a naïve romantic ideal I have in mind, jerk. It's going away so I find something to come back to. Don't shit on me, okay? That's not fair. You don't shit on the little girl's dreams. They're not so stupid.
-You're just dying to have somebody knock reality into you. - He shoved his hand viciously into the popcorn bowl. Boris was absorbed by the shirtless dancing men, and was no help.
-And it's going to be you, Ali? - Pen asked maliciously.
Connor's jawline softened at the same time it ticked once as an errant muscle leaped up as if caught asleep and wishing to make up for it by overperformance. -No, they're not so stupid, - he murmured, returning to the screen, ignoring her latest jab.
-Oh, for fuck's sake. - She muttered, swiping the popcorn bowl and gobbling half of the remaining kernels in ten seconds flat. It was a small petty victory, but a victory nonetheless, because he always finished arguments by abruptly saying something that reminded her he wasn't completely brain dead and emotionally retarded.
-Moon river, wider than a mile…I'm crossing you in style some day…Oh dream maker, you heart breaker...Wherever you're going…I'm going your way…- The material of the couch absorbed the vibrations from his soft, lightly mocking hum and sent them deep into the bones of her arm. His scratchy tenor broke her heart, and she had to concentrate very deeply on the flamingos to avoid swallowing too hard. When Holly Golightly sang it Pen had cried and cried, and as Connor whispered it she again thought of little lost girls and little lost boys, bright city lights.
She wants…she wants…
If she closes her eyes very tightly and thinks very hard, sometimes she can feel rain.
Scared little girls are always running. Beat, beat, beat on the packed dirt of earthen paths. She is not very scared, but Pen still hears the varying tones of her feet on wide marble tiles, wooden planks, the hollow earth. In her dreams she sees a red, red, running deer, swiftly moving in leaps and bounds across fields of yellow grass. She has trouble sleeping because the constant thudding pounds so deep in her chest that one day her heart is going to hammer itself through the cage of her ribs and leave her, quietly shuddering, on the cold ground. She will watch her life slowly melt out of the gaping hole.
Run away with me. We can be Ilsa and Rick under a Moroccan sun, taking charge of our own destinies in a city made for waiting. It is the city of lost love and smoke. It will be a different Morocco than the one Rick and Ilsa loved in, but we will find echoes of it in dusty noisy markets and burnished sand. Oh god, let's run away, just us together, insubstantial mirages who see each other clearest of all. And it doesn't have to be the shifting sands of Casablanca where we will trace each other's names—let's walk the shadows of the Louvre, compose ourselves in Japanese cherry blossoms, paint our faces yellow with saffron somewhere in the south of Spain. Oh god, run away with me, and I swear, I swear I will find you the edge of the earth.
She's always felt for the Moors, for their portrayal in her Eurocentric textbooks as barbaric invaders. Less mainstream history tells her that during their reign Muslims and Jews and Christians lived side-by-side in Granada, which is more than what she can say for her time, because religious and ideological friction has been the basis of her civilization for as long as she knows. All the same it is beautiful to imagine such a city, where artistic, mathematic, and scientific achievement flourished and was recognized. She imagines that perhaps that was what Marx had wished to achieve, with awful ramifications.
She wonders what the last Moorish king felt when he was put on a boat by Isabella, banished to a homeland that had not been his homeland for a hundred years, and watched the red dust of Spain fade away to nothing. Did he cry?
A long time ago, before she has ever wanted to tell him her secrets, she sees Connor behind the local grocery store, banging his head into the wall with so regular a beat that it is like he is run by a machine. The sun beats down on her back, and she feels condensation from her milk carton coalescing coolly on her hand. He is dressed in long shorts and a thin t-shirt. She is struck again by his visual opposition to Boris, how his hair is so messy and his fingers so long.
-Fuck off, Pen, - he says wildly to her, stumbling on a broken beer bottle. -Everything's fine here.
-Like hell it is, - she replies, nonchalantly dangling her car keys and trying not to show how disturbed she feels. –Want a ride home? I was heading over to see Boris anyway.
-Shit, did you hear me?
-Yeah, I heard you, and what's more I see and smell you and you look and smell like beer and piss. Shit, Connor.
He bangs his head on the wall again, a hoarse cry coming out of his cracked lips. He's too loud and violent for a drowsy day in August. It's wrong, like those games she used to play as a kid where you were supposed to pick out the thing that didn't belong in a group of five. His hands are bleeding, the rims of his eyes only a little less red than his knuckles. -Fuck! Fuck!
-Connor— He's scaring her. Her voice trembles as her body sways forward again. She hears weakness in her tone and wants to strangle it.
-Don't cry your fucking crocodile tears for me, little girl. – He pants like a cornered animal, a bull running through the streets of Pamplona. Snarls, -Just go back to your empty house and its empty bedrooms and stop pitying the fucked-up lost boy.
Because Pen is stupid, she takes another step forward and puts her cool hand against Connor's heaving chest. She doesn't know what to expect, but its sudden expansion and rapid deflation at her touch was not it. Perhaps she expected it would be hard and brittle, like anger had paralyzed him whole. But she can feel him breathe, sucking in the sultry summer heat in the silence. Rattling carts in the parking lot and chirping birds are all she hears besides the sound of them breathing. -Go take a shower, dude. – She tells him solemnly as if she thinks it's going to help. -And get some sleep. You look like shit.
The skin of his eyelids is papery thin when he closes them. The sunlight gleans through them and she picks up the red and purple veins. -I'm not lost, - he says in a whispery little boy voice, like he's too tired to shout anymore. -I just swear a lot and sometimes I drink a lot and I'm fucking mental but I have some things that tie me down and keep me from floating. I want you to know that because otherwise you won't stop looking at me like you're disappointed.
She absorbs this, she recognizes what he is trying to do, and she goes back to what he called her before. -You know, Connor, I'm only a little over a year younger than you, you sentimental dick. - And life hasn't been over the rainbow for anyone.
-I know. – He says in a small way. -Can I tell you something? I wanna tell you I did a bad thing once. Your sophomore year. I made a bet with some jerk that I'd sleep with you.
She slaps him before the last syllable is even completely out of his mouth, pulling her hand away from the warm rise and fall of his chest to connect with his face. It makes a dull thudding squishy smack, flesh on flesh. -You fucking asshole. – She hisses. And wants to cry. She feels so demeaned by this. She feels like something less than a warm hole. She feels that by hearing what she just heard, Pen has ceased to exist as Pen and all the things that stitch her patchwork self together come unraveled.
-And I couldn't, - Connor continues, and it is so hard to hate him when he is being honest. -I couldn't, because I looked at you after making that bet and tried to imagine your hair on my pillow—
—and thought of you in your moronic cotton cartoon panties lying back on my sheets—
-Stop! – Putting her hands over her ears, she shrieks this time, hoping volume will get to him. She doesn't want to hear this. This is what people mean when they say they want to scrub themselves so clean that they leave their skin pink and bleeding. But he doesn't stop talking, and she can still hear him through the ocean shells of her cupped palms.
—tried to imagine thudding into you, holding you, feeling your sweat on my chest, and then getting up and walking away and seeing you in the corner of my eye for the rest of my life as something I had ruined and I couldn't, Pen, I couldn't do that. You were fifteen years old and I couldn't do that to you.
-Stop. – She sobs. -Why are you telling me this?
There is a break in his voice. -I don't know. Because I'm wasted. Because you should know. Shouldn't you know? – He coughs gutturally. In slow motion, his eyes roll into the back of his head, and he falls onto the dusty floor.
She wipes her crocodile tears with the back of her hand and bends over in a squat, her hands flat against her thighs. She lets one grieving moan tear itself out of her breast, and then half-carries him to her car. He is just barely conscious enough to stumble beside her when his head isn't lolling back on its boneless neck. Dirt from his fingers smudges her window when she puts him into the passenger's seat and drives him home because she is a big person. Because she is a bigger person than he is. Because she has learned after a long time how to forgive.
She wants you to know that she loved (loves) her dad. She idolizes him, and yet at the same time she holds no illusions about him. He is not only her dad; he is a man and she realizes this with a kind of stark, trees-in-winter clarity. Her dad is one of the most intelligent people she knows. And her dad is one of the most emotionally disconnected people she knows, too, and he has an alcohol problem but refuses to admit it. And her dad—she recognizes this as truth—is an asshole. He is such an asshole. And she loves him anyway, she loves him after he breaks up their family when she is twelve years old because he has an affair with another woman, she loves him when she watches him with her little sister and sees that he is not a dad—he is not mature enough to be a dad—and is only a friend who spoils and indulges her because that is the only way he knows how to handle it. The look in his eyes when he looks at his oldest daughter is like… It's disconnect. It's struggle, because on some fundamental level he realizes that he should know what to say to his daughter when they are by themselves. It's a confused and guilty adoration.
She sees families walking around sometimes. Sometimes it's the perfect nuclear family, and the husband and the wife hold hands, and the two children run laughing ahead, making faces when the man kisses the woman—her heart aches a little when she sees this. Sometimes it is just a dad and a daughter. Her heart breaks a little when she sees this, too.
There are movies where daughters cry over the bodies of dead fathers, where fathers cry over the bodies of dead sons, where sons cry over the bodies of dead mothers, where mothers cry over the bodies of dead daughters. Dead, dead, dead, all of them. So the tears are kind of wasted, aren't they? Because they aren't phoenix tears or unicorn tears or motherfucking dragon tears (can dragons cry?). They are only human tears, and human tears can't bring the dead back to life. I am Lazarus, come from the dead.
And Pen wonders. She wonders if she'd cry over her dad's body if he died.
Fathers are funny things, aren't they?
She remembers a father that for a few awful years never seemed to smile, that told her in that fucking monotone that she was gaining weight, that her fat was hanging out over the edge of her pants, that she needed to eat less and exercise more because she didn't want to end up obese, did she? 'Cause obese people weren't happy.
What kind of fucktard tells his fourteen year old daughter that her fat is hanging out over the edge of her pants?
And hell, but she'd seen plenty of heavier people that were happier than her.
But the same dad had once held her when she was five, closed her closet doors and blocked the monster, smoothed back her damp, sweaty hair and sung They Can't Take That Away From Me to her for an hour before she finally went back to sleep. She also remembers that dad.
So she'd cry at his funeral, maybe. But…maybe not the right kind of tears. She'd cry because she never got that shot at the proper nuclear family. She'd cry because she was so tired of not crying when she wanted to. She'd cry selfish tears because she never got to say, 'Look at my dad. He's so great, isn't he? I wish everybody had a dad like mine', and because she never got the chance to want to say that (because it was bad to lie).
She'd cry because she missed him, too. She'd cry because the monsters in her closet are glaring at her with cold, cold eyes and because she needs to hear the song again (they can't take you away, they can't, they can't).
Daughters look for their fathers in their mates, she is told. And she refuses to believe that. She made a promise to herself that she would never fall in love with a man like her father; that she would never, ever become her mother. (Oh god, this contempt for her mother. She will never admit this to anyone, not even herself, but she is ashamed of her mother. She is ashamed of her mother's weakness and she does not deserve her mother's unconditional love.)
Yet here she is, fascinated by a boy who is angry enough to destroy worlds, who is intelligent and spiteful and doesn't want to grow up even as he is relentlessly propelled towards it.
But he is different. She knows he is different. Because when she tried to bake for their testosterone-overloaded family (Boris was no exception) and she set off the smoke alarm and ruined their stove, he could barely talk to the firefighting department, he was laughing so hard. Because she catches him reading e.e. cummings behind Playboy magazines. Because he makes Boris a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch every single fucking day because it's the only thing he knows how to make.
-You're happy. – Connor stated bluntly sometime in the end of November.
Her joy gave her enough courage to playfully tweak his forbidding aquiline nose. –I'm very happy.
-Why are you happy.
She clapped her hands, batting her eyelashes at him. He had ceased to be entirely forbidding all of the time, and now he was only somewhat forbidding most of the time. –It's like playing twenty questions! Guess.
-You got laid.
-That's such a typical male response.
-Oh? Because only males get satisfaction from sex?
-I Tiresias… – She shrugged, pretending to be intelligent and avant-garde.
He snorted, and for a brief moment his dark eyes smiled. Peanut butter skittered on the side of his neck and a preserved strawberry hung in his hair. Where she had pulled the Greek name out of her butt at 6:30 in the morning was beyond her, but she had no idea why Connor was awake when college didn't start for him until 10. –Boris, get your gay ass down here before I bust down the bathroom door and steal your hairdryer. – Connor yelled up the stairs.
-Upside down and sideways, bitch.
-Don't even wanna think about it, man!
Connor returned to sloppily smearing jam on the bread, and then, after a thoughtful pause, quickly sliced off the crusts. –Here, - he flung the sandwich at Pen, who barely caught it. –You don't like crusts, right?
-Yeah… - For some reason her throat was clogged.
-So take it. You don't have lunch and you don't have an ass.
A vile urge to wrap her arms around his neck for something other than the purpose of cutting off his air supply overcame her. Her eyes darted from his forehead to his lips to his feet, where they finally settled. He had nice feet. They were mostly hairless, and perfectly proportioned. His toes weren't so long that they looked like foreign growths from the bed of his soles, and they weren't so short that they looked like he had always been forced to wear shoes too small for him and it had permanently damaged his cells. They were Restoration Ivory pale. She wanted to kiss his pale, perfectly proportioned feet.
Awkwardly, she scrambled in her bag for her packet of soy nuts—he was such a health food freak—and tossed them on the counter. –For school, - she cleared her throat, because she would not let him be the provider. She was the goddamn hunter and gatherer. –Yours, I mean.
-Oh! Uh, thanks.
They stood in a weird silence, looking around the kitchen.
-Anyway. – She said in a low voice at the same time he nervously
((he is so not used to being nice to her and receiving her acceptance that he feels the need to talk to bring them back to normalcy))
nervously asked, -So you didn't get laid?
She screamed through gritted teeth and threw herself out of the house. Boris came running down the stairs five seconds later, whacked Connor upside the head, grabbed his sandwich and ran after her.
((Pen doesn't see it, but after Boris has maimed his skull Connor finds one of his mom's old cookbooks in the basement and tries to figure out how to make spaghetti, with limited success. He mixes up basil with mint when he goes to the grocery store and has to go back for the actual thing, and his meat sticks to the bottom of the pot. He swears under his breath throughout the entirety of his labor, sweating like a fucking pig in Singapore above the heat of the stove. There are red tomato stains wedged in crevices that he will never be able to clean out, as well as a puddle of red wine rapidly soaking into the kitchen mat. His face in the stainless steel surface of the saucepan glares back at him with a red frustration, too.
He forgets his classes. He eats nothing but the soy nuts Pen gave him, privately worshipping her. He drinks a lot of the wine he got for the spaghetti, and tremblingly touches a yellow blob on the front of the apron that used to belong to his mom. The strings are too long on his narrow waist where they were perfect for the more heavily framed woman, so he has had to double wrap it, and it adds to his sense that he is disturbing something sacred. Yet he remembers the smell of her pot roast and her lasagna and her gumbo—the only thing she couldn't do with spices, protein, carbohydrates and fiber was bake—and a bit of his long-held anger goes away when he stirs in a dribbling of balsamic vinegar. He remembers to remember his mom.
At around five o'clock he hears the front door slam open, and then loud voices abruptly stop at the foreign smell. He yells to Boris that he is in the kitchen, for some reason nervous again. Today has been a day of lost certainty. He looks over at Pen, who pads into the kitchen behind his little brother in an oversized shirt and boxers, and watches her expressionlessly. He expects her to laugh. In his head, he taunts her, begging her to laugh. There are so many things to laugh at, like his bright red face and his flowered apron and the red spaghetti sauce inkblot that looks a little like two humping dogs on the fridge.
But she doesn't. She just smacks Boris's gaping mouth closed and orders him to help her make salad. Connor turns back to his sauce, peering at it suspiciously like if he blinks it's going to self-combust. He is grateful for her silence and the small smile she gives him when she asks him if he has lettuce.
-In the fridge, lower bin, - he replies gruffly, wiping his face with his sleeve, convincing himself that he isn't fucking crying like a puss. It's the goddamn fucking onions. Fuck.
Her hair looks like a river running red under the kitchen lights. She straightens, and returning it's just writhing curls of dead follicles the shade of mud by the lake. And her eyes are merely blue, blue, blue. And her compassion is merely compassion.))
It's now 7 at night, and Pen can't concentrate on her math homework. Her blue eyes (she hates the empty color because it belongs to princesses and unicorns) fix themselves on her phone. A hideous sigh emerges in the May heat. She shuts it up with a scream. Sighing and waiting and fainting and fleeting is something she cannot, will not be. Doesn't she have more control than that? Doesn't she have more responsibility than that?
The world is not a random series of events and neither is it driven by destiny. Our choices have effects. She knows this and she embraces this doctrine because she very much believes in the power of the individual to pull herself from the relentless seas and to cling to that soggy plank of wood with all the strength in her fragile fingers. She hated Rose for letting go of Jack. She lost respect for promises that day (even more so than the day her daddy packed his bags).
"And drowning is not your style anyway," she sternly admonishes herself as she picks up her phone.
((and he wants to die))
Occasionally he comes home with black eyes and bleeding lips. Because Pen basically lives at their house and is a bit of an insomniac, he often finds himself tended to by her. He was surprised, the first time, to see her tiptoe towards him that first night, maneuvering confidently in the darkness with the sureness that came from frequent practice. Connor had never really noticed moonlight before—in fact had regarded it as an urban myth—but it streamed through the living room skylights and formed pale dissected diamonds on the carpet, shifting when she walked through them. Silently, she had cleaned and bandaged him, and silently he had watched her.
Now she does it for him every night he comes home with his cuts and bruises and she is sleeping over. Sometimes she lectures him. Sometimes they are silent in the moonlight, like they were the first night she had seen evidence of how much he liked to screw himself over. Sometimes she cries, tears dripping off her nose, and she makes no noise and he does not comfort her.
One time she was actually sleeping at her own house, for once, and while he was using his teeth to bandage a gauze pad to his right arm he found that he missed the fierce look of concentration she had when she was wiping away his blood, and the heat of her fingers. He did not admit this to himself for a while.
This night in April, though, he has picked a fight with someone he shouldn't have. Someone who has steel-toed boots and like to use them in the gut. Connor swings wildly, stumbling on unsteady feet and feels something crack when the sonuvabitch—a huge hulking beast of a guy, the size of fucking Godzilla, Connor swears to god—shoves him into the wall. No, 'shove' is too delicate a word. Godzilla fucking tosses him into the wall like a Raggedy Anne doll, yanks his boneless body back like a boomerang and gets a good four punches in Connor's face.
And oh, fuck, fuck, fuck his face has swollen up like a hot air balloon and his cheeks are eating his eyeballs until he won't be anything else but a motherfucking pair of cheeks. It hurts and he wants his mom. He feels gingerly around his cheek-al area and feels that he has grown old man jowls. It hurts his vanity. And he is thinking about his old-man jowls while he is bleeding out of every single orifice in his body except for possibly his rectum, but that's going to come too if the fucker decides that ass-kicking isn't enough and decides that anal rape should be the daily special on the menu of Connor. Shit, he hurts so bad. He feels wetness trickle down his pants, and Connor is quite sure that he is going to die.
In the end the guy decides he isn't worth it. Connor opens his eyes into slits and sees Godzilla's eyes examining him. Godzilla has hard calloused hands and scars on his face, and Connor was a fucking moron to use his stupid words (stupid ugly words; when did he become so capable of cruelty?) to provoke him into a fight. Connor has soft white boy hands and the only scars on his face are from his razor.
Godzilla calls a cab to take Connor home. He is so humiliated that he wants to cry, and he hasn't cried throughout the whole thing. Only screamed a lot.
When he trips through his door he falls down in a pool of his spit and blood. His shirt is tinged pink from the combination. If he actually had something in his stomach he would probably throw up.
Warm hands on his forearm, and then he is being half-carried to the couch. –This is the second time I'm carrying you. – A grunt. –If you keep this up you're going to have to lose weight.
He can only let out a pitiful moan, feeling pathetic.
-Yes. – She says soothingly. –Yes, I know it hurts a lot. But I'm going to get you feeling better, okay Connor? You're gonna feel better soon, I promise.
He wonders what he has done to deserve this. He thinks back on all the animals he has refrained from killing in his life. On the other hand he ponders the animals he has not refrained from killing in his life.
A cool cloth is pressed to his eye, and he whimpers and hisses like an animal, digging his soft hands into the couch. He is ashamed that he can't take it like a man. And he scratches that thought away because he's seen childbirth and has no right to think that. Pen is between his knees, kneeling on the floor as she carefully removes the dirty muck layered on his skin. The premonition strikes him that he's going to knock over her kit of bandages and creams if he gives an involuntary leg spasm of pain. Able to talk more coherently now, in words instead of groans, he mutters something about it. She moves it a little away, and says politely, -Okay, now you can spaz all you want.
She humbles him a lot of the time, not just with her words (and she can be mean too) but with her actions.
-How are you doing? – Her strokes are soft.
He doesn't answer her. There's a brief flare of irrational anger. How do you think I'm doing?
-Why are you so sad? – She asks him in an ever softer tone. And she sounds more sorrowful than he has ever felt in his life.
-Don't ask me that I'm not sad I miss my mom do you know that? – he whispers in one sentence without answering the question.
-I miss my dad.
-This is about me.
-Tell me a story.
She purses her lips in the moonlight. When he looks at her he sees a lot of things, like an unforgiving hard girl and also a cheeky romantic poet girl who feels too much. He doesn't know how she can reconcile the two because he sometimes feels like he's going to burst with all the people inside him. And he knows he's not schizophrenic because crazy people don't know they're crazy.
-What kind of story?
-A true one. – He wants to listen to her voice when she is working on the rest of his injuries. He doesn't want to look down accidentally and see Godzilla's handwork.
-Then I'm going to tell you a silly story. Is that okay? Okay. Anyway, when I was little I did something that pissed my parents off. I don't remember what; maybe I grabbed a handful of beans from their salad or something. We lived in an apartment at the time, which was pretty old, so it was pretty dim at night because the lighting hadn't been so great back then. They sent me to my room to have a timeout.
-Y'know, where you're put by yourself to ponder your sins. It was a tiny, tiny apartment and so the rooms were equally tiny, but because I was so little myself my room felt like a vast black cave. The only light came from behind the glass door that separated my bedroom from the dining room, but its lonely little square barely reached a foot into the room. So the rest looked like it stretched on for eternity. I could've been scared. I should've been scared. But I had this tiny flashlight with me, the kind that only shines this pinprick of light. Boris used to have one. I stole it from him a couple years ago.
-What? That used to be mine. That bastard's had it this whole time?
-Oh. Sorry. I can get it back to you if you want.
-No, keep it. It's probably infested. You've seen the state of his room.
-Okay. But yeah. I had the flashlight. So instead I just played by myself the whole time. I know my parents probably intended it to be punishment, but it was the most fun I've ever had, chasing myself with the flashlight and trying to figure out if I moved it fast enough, if I could have two dots going at once. The walls were thin, so I could hear the constant murmur of my parents in the other room. And it was comforting. Maybe that was why I wasn't scared, all that time by myself in a big room. Because I had the light and I had company. It's like…going back to being cavemen with survival instincts. It's going back to biological fear. And when I got tired of playing with the flashlight an hour or so later, I wobbled on my toddler legs back to the dining room and crawled into my mom's lap from under the table. And they were surprised to see me, because they thought I'd fallen asleep, like a normal kid does in a dark room by themselves. But I wanted to be close to them. I put my sticky fingers around my mom's neck and told my dad what I'd been doing the whole time. And my parents laughed. I could feel my mom's laugh shaking through her skin. And I've never felt that safe in my life, you know? Never.
Connor absorbs this, and believes for a moment—just a moment—that he could adore her, and then jokes creakily, -And the moral of the story is?
-Well, they never gave me a time out again.
He throws his head back and laughs. The sound bounces off the walls of his house, and even though it hurts his abused throat he is not inclined to stop. At least until Pen frantically tries to verbally shush him and then has to scramble practically on top of him to smack her hand against his mouth in a vain attempt to quiet him. He has to stop then, when she is looking at him with her eyes all wide and panicked. He can feel his eyes still crinkling with mirth.
He licks her hand, a genuine slobbery dog lick. She squeals louder than he had laughed, and it sets him off again. This time he gets a pillow in the face for his trouble. –Oof! I'm an invalid!
-Through your own damn fault. – But her voice is warm all the same.
-Why are you nice to me? – he asks abruptly around his pillow. –I'm not that nice to you.
-Because. – She efficiently tapes a gauze padding over his left eye, smirking with a satisfied air at her craftsmanship. –I feel bad for pathetic people.
Then she actually answers him. She is always so honest. Lies have never become her and she has never been able to pull them off. She can be the most direct and brutally honest person he knows when she's asked a direct question. He appreciates her lack of bullshit so much when she isn't being flippant (which she also does quite often). -Because…I'd be very sorry if you went away. –
He is very still. –I'm tired, Pen. – He whispers, and then feels it as his whole body sags with weariness.
-Okay. – She leans him down, and he smells her breath. It's like warm grass, he thinks nonsensically. Sleep sounds amazing at this point, and he feels her fingers ghosting over his cuts like he's been separated from this reality by a thin sheet. She spreads a thick oily cream over a particularly large scrape, and he winces.
-Shh. Go to sleep.
-Yeah. – She sings him Moon River while she's scraping blood and gore off his injuries in a voice that wavers and goes off-key sometimes, and cracks and has trouble maintaining the whispery volume she's trying to set. It's the tenderest thing he's ever heard.
A week ago he tells Pen about his mom. He tells her how his mom read crappy legal thriller novels in her spare time. How when in kindergarten he made her one of those hideous macaroni necklaces with glitter and neon plastic beads and the whole works, she was so proud of it that she wore it everywhere—even to a fancy restaurant with her favorite black dress, despite his dad's pleading for her to take it off and wear some nice pearls—until it broke apart. And how he remembered thinking, Wow. My mom loves me so much and she is going to love me forever.
And more than that he tells her about himself. He tells her his favorite color (blue) and his favorite season (winter). Because she knows so much of the rest. And he tells her…he tells her that he doesn't believe in God. He tells her that he thinks that maybe religion was invented so that death wasn't so scary. And that he's terrified of death. He is piss-in-his-pants terrified of dying. But he's trying to accept it as something that is inevitable so he has to get used to the idea anyway. She tells him that she thinks it must be very hard to live without faith in something, and he tells her that that's not what he said, because he believes in words and those are his gods.
He cries when he talks about his mom.
She leans over and presses her pink lips to his cheeks. His tears are salty and warm, and his skin feels rougher than she thought it would. She cries too, as her eyelashes brush against his cheekbones and she follows one tear all the way down his trembling jawline to the fluttering pulse at his neck. She thinks he is shaking as much as she is, and though she has never stared death in the face like he has she thinks that he is just as frightened, too. Long fingers touch the crown of her head, and…and…
-Please? – He asks shyly.
She turns her springtime lips away from his chin and their mouths collide, smashing and hard and yearning.
He murmurs Sartre and loneliness into her lips, and half-sobs meaning and hope, and he presses her fiercely into the wall. They stumble together, knock something over, crash into the hard plaster. She feels wetness on her cheeks and is unable to determine whether it belongs to her or to him, but she thinks it may be both. And as he cries, the words vibrating in the no-space between them burn brightly like…like things more real than she has ever found in his world. He begs quietly, declares fiercely against her lips that meaning is created by the individual himself, that we are not born knowing innate truths. He swears and cusses and weeps and asks what his own truth is because he doesn't know anymore.
And gradually he slows, he quiets, his kisses become less grieving and more tender, and he begins to whisper Yeats and Byron into her mouth like prayers from a godless man. She softly breathes them in, swallows his words, takes as much of his pain into her being as possible, no longer to reassure herself of his humanity, but to reassure him of her presence. Soon he is no longer frantically filling her with words of both loss and hope, bleakness and beauty, being and nothingness, but is content to nuzzle against her nose, sigh, press petal-soft lips to her bottom lip, then her top one. The tears begin to dry, his crushing grip on her hands held to the wall above her head slackens; his hands brush against the curve of her waist and curl against the back of her neck like they were cast from the same mold. When his tongue strokes against the curve of her swollen lower lip, she grants him entrance. His resulting sigh of contentment feels like spring. In it she thinks she can taste a question, a promise, as many words as there are stars and then much less.
He picks up on the first ring. "Thank god. I was trying to call you but I couldn't even though I tried five million times in seven days and I couldn't sleep because my damn phone kept staring at me and I probably shouldn't have admitted that and now I sound like a douche—"
"Connor," she feels like the whole neighborhood is able to see her glow right now. "Connor, let's go do something. Let's go somewhere."
"Sometimes I think about going to Casablanca with you." He admits. And he is baring his heart. He is baring it all for a girl, and he thinks it's so silly that it all comes down to the girl, but when he looks at her he sees all the best things he knows about this world. And some of the bad things, yes, because he does not idolize her. But he doesn't mind them, really. Some of them he's almost affectionate about. And he looks at her, and he thinks, God. I can't believe she picked me.
"But that didn't end too well for them, did it?" She says. "It ended gorgeously but it ended. Let's be better than that."
He laughs. His laugh is beautiful and she is beautiful. "Tell me. Tell me where we'll go and we'll go."
"Let's go everywhere. Let's go everywhere in the world so we can find the onewhere. And oh, I'm being silly. We can't go now. But promise me? Can you promise me that one day we'll go? One day we will pick up our bags and we will see the West Coast, and the East and the North and the South."
His sigh is wistful. "I promise. I promise I promise I promise, Pen."
(She doesn't trust promises.)
((Prove me wrong.))
"But I can take you to the city for now. I can take you to the city, like on Friday night, and we can stare at diamonds we can't afford and I can win you a shitty stuffed animal at the carnival and buy you something at a vendor stall that you'll probably get food poisoning from. And we can stare at the girls with their Twiggy legs and Twiggy eyes and the boys who are part-time punks and part-time preps, and get lost in the bright lights like colored stars."
She sniggers into the phone, and anyone else would have thought that she was being mocking and dismissive, but he knows from that particular tone that she is probably reaching for a box of tissues. "You can't ever just invite a girl to go see a movie, can you?"
Somehow she can feel his smile through their phone connection. "Can I tell you a secret?"
He breathes, "You make me kinda nervous."
She imagines one thousand nights with him, she imagines Friday with him, she imagines holding his hand and she feels suddenly much braver. She doesn't feel like Gaia but neither does she feel like Horus. She thinks that it's not such a bad thing to be the one that embraces but she would also like to be the one that flies. She hopes really hard that Connor is able to understand this, and a part of her already knows that he has.
"You make me kinda nervous too." She whispers back.
Moon River, wider than a mile,
I'm crossing you in style some day.
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker,
wherever you're going I'm going your way.
Two drifters off to see the world.
There's such a lot of world to see.
We're after the same rainbow's end--
waiting 'round the bend,
my huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me.
Disclaimer: 'Moon River' by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Also featured in Breakfast at Tiffany's. I made kind of a lot of allusions throughout the whole story so I don't have room to disclaim them all, but I'm pretty sure you'll be able to recognize them where I've made them and therefore know that they're not mine. :)
A/N: I'm fairly sure that this is one of the most personal full-length features I have ever written. Like…if you read this you know a lot about me. But not everything in the characters is me; that I can promise you. And I know that there were some things in here that may have offended some people, but I ask you to keep your criticism for the story. And there are a lot of things that can be fixed. I'm still working on perfecting this style. But I hope you liked it anyway. :) Thank you.