"Are you okay?"
We'd been sitting in your car for a while, soft music playing on the radio. I thought I recognized Howie Day's voice--even the best fall down sometimes. You hadn't asked for an explanation and I hadn't offered one, but the tears were flowing steadily. I kept lifting the bottom of my shirt to my face, dabbing at my eyes. The cotton along the hem was wet.
"The real answer?" I asked.
Your eyes left the road for a moment, skidding away from the gray cement that was like a river, flowing out into an ocean of traffic and trees and houses and people. Even scientists weren't sure how the bottom of the ocean looked, the creatures who lived there. The thought scared me. "Yeah. The real answer."
"No," I laughed, running my shirt over my eyes again, exposing a small patch of my stomach, the bellybutton piercing I'd gotten with Gin and Stella. I was wearing a butterfly with crystals on its wings. Little silver strands with pink flowers dangled from the bottom of it. My goal was to get skinny enough to show it off, my stomach hollow and smooth, a shell, the bones of my hips like sea glass. I kept forgetting that I had displayed it proudly before, had worn floral print shirts that tied around my neck and went to the tanning bed every week. That all seemed like a lifetime ago. I tugged my shirt down to meet my jeans. "No, I'm not."
"Is there anything I can do?" You weren't looking at me, but your voice was soothing all the same, slow and easy, like clouds gliding across an aquamarine sky. It was a voice that didn't demand anything, didn't ask me to give more than I was willing or able to. I shook my head.
"I just want to sleep for a while."
"You can have the bed, if you want." You guided the car around a turn, your hands steady at the wheel. I'd never realized how relaxing it could be to watch someone drive. My mom had road rage, and Stella was too guarded, afraid that something horrible was going to happen if she got within ten feet of another car. Kyle played his music way too loud and sang along off-key, which was fun but could get annoying if you weren't in the mood for it. Gin acted like a trapeze artist on wheels, going full-speed down hills, seeing how sharp she could take the turns. You were capable and calm, and it made me feel safe. "My room's not exactly sparkling, but there aren't any moldy sandwiches or anything. We can change the sheets."
"Change the sheets?" I looked at you, my tears all but disappearing at the surprise I felt. "What do you mean? I'm only going to be there for an hour or two, right?"
"You have somewhere to go?"
"No..." I trailed off, wiping stray droplets of salt water off my cheeks. I hadn't thought about that part. "I guess I could ask my aunt, but, I mean, she lives in New York. It's not like we're exactly close."
"So stay with me."
"Look. Do you plan on going back home any time soon?" Your voice wasn't harsh, but it was firm.
"No." I shook my head as I said the word. I knew that much was true. No matter what, I didn't want to live back there again. Not then, anyway. Not with things being the way they were.
"Okay, then. It's settled." You reached out to turn up the music just a little, effectively telling me that there wasn't any room for argument. You did that kind of thing a lot, I would come to find out. Turned up the music, changed the topic of conversation. Most of the time it was cute, but sometimes it could be annoying. Even if I knew you'd probably win in the end, I wanted to talk things out.
"I'll help pay for the rent," I said quickly, unable to hide how grateful I was. "Really. I'll find a job. And I'll wash dishes, and I can do the laundry, and--"
"Lace, chill. I'm your friend, not your owner." You shot me a grin. "You're like...my guest. It'll be like having a long sleep-over or whatever."
"Are we going to paint our toenails and compare the boys at school?"
"I've always thought Travis Nager had a fine ass," you told me, your tone so serious that I had to look over at your face to tell that you were joking.
And that's how things went at first. Simple, smooth. I moved into your apartment, though I took your couch instead of your bed. You let me have a quilt your mom knitted, buttery yellow with huge blue and white flowers on it, to make up for having to sleep on the beer-scented piece of furniture. You cleared out a drawer full of body lube and condoms and Hustler magazines to let me put my clothes in it instead, blushing the whole time because I wouldn't leave the room and helped you stack the magazines.
"Everything on her body is fake," I pointed out when a cover picture of a particularly large-chested brunette fell into my hands. Her lips were as plump and red as raw hamburger patties and her hair practically reached her ankles, an extension-clad Rapunzel. Her eyelashes looked like paintbrush bristles.
"Shut up," you muttered, shoving the magazine under the little stack already gathered. "Those aren't mine, anyway."
"Oh? You already have a roommate?"
"No, it's just--they--they're a Christmas gift, okay?"
I clapped my hands over my mouth in mock horror. "You got these on a day meant to celebrate baby Jesus?"
"It was a subscription. Not much I could do about it." You weren't looking at me. "Besides, sometimes they have good ads."
It felt like I laughed for an hour straight.
That night, we drove to Blockbuster and rented a couple of movies. It was my treat; after all, I had taken your couch. We stayed up eating popcorn, staining the couch with butter and laughing at some stupid Adam Sandler movie. I told you what had happened back at my house in bits and pieces, letting you string it all together. In return, you made me a chocolate milkshake and didn't say anything when I cried all over your shirt.
I realized in that first week of living together how little I knew about you. You used eucalyptus shampoo and cinnamon toothpaste. You actually left the toilet seat down, but you never cleaned up any messes you made in the kitchen. You could cook amazing spaghetti and even made the sauce from scratch when you could afford the ingredients. You snored. Your mom died of breast cancer when you were fourteen.
The last part I found out one night while we were sitting on the couch again, my fingers wrapped around your hair, twisting strands together. We'd been talking about stupid stuff, how there had probably been at least seven different Barney the Dinosaurs, how you'd heard that they'd switched from using a guy actor to using a girl actor because they were afraid a guy may try to mess with the little kids, how the baby in the sun on the Teletubbies was really creepy and whether cartoon characters had multiples of the same outfit or were just really smelly most of the time when I asked you something I'd been wondering since I'd moved in.
"Why do you have your own apartment?" I asked, braiding three strips of your dark hair, over and under, over and under. "Were your parents mean to you or something?"
"No, not exactly. Like, my dad left when I was four," you said, picking up one of the tiny rubber bands I was using to tie around your braids and putting it on your finger. It was electric blue, the same color as the pebbles that some people poured in the bottom of their fish tanks or the blue veins corded down your arms. "I don't remember much."
I twisted a bright pink rubber band into a few strands near your face. Your hair was so soft and you smelled like the earth after a big rainstorm, clean, renewed. Maybe you were the storm itself, crackling with thunder, all that raw energy. The braid fell beside your cheek. "What about your mom?"
"She died," you said. It sounded rehearsed, like you'd told it to yourself standing in front of the mirror, forming the words until they were meaningless. She died. You were barely eighteen.
"How did it happen?" I asked, leaning forward, taking in your rainstorm scent, the eucalyptus shampoo. I already had an idea, and that pink ribbon you always pinned to your hoodie suddenly made sense.
"Breast cancer. She tried everything she could, but we didn't have much money in the first place, and the disease was sucking that away as fast as it was sucking her away..." You turned the blue rubber band around your finger like a wedding ring you wanted to remove, that thin golden strip that worked as well as a pair of handcuffs. Only to some people, though. Others could slip it off, throw it on the street, keep walking. They hocked hearts and promises at thrift shops, they forgot their children. They found out their wife had cancer and shut the door in her face.
"Almost four years ago," you said, then stopped as though you were considering telling me something else. The next words were quiet, a running tally. "Three years, seven months, fifteen days. I was at school."
"I'm sorry," I said. There was nothing else to say. What do you tell a person when someone they love dies? It's going to be okay? Because it won't, not really. Things don't feel okay for a long, long time, and even when they do the person still knows that there's something missing. If you say sorry, it seems inadequate. You don't even know what sorry is compared to how sorry the people left behind have to be feeling.
"Yeah. It shouldn't have bothered me so much. I mean, she'd been in bad health. I knew it was coming. But I wasn't there..." You twisted the rubber band tighter, the tip of your finger turning red. "She looked so pitiful. She was bald and her eyes were all sunken into her head and her skin was like tissue paper, it was so thin. Her bones were like a bird's. People ask me why I can describe it so well or how I can say it so easily, I guess, but it's not like..." You shook your head, the braids swinging from left to right. "It's not like what happened with Gin, something you just hear. I watched her die for over a year. You don't forget things like that. It's not a show you see on television about some kids starving in Africa. It's reality."
I finished the last braid, a neon yellow band this time, and let it fall against your neck. Your voice was hard, gritty with cynicism and pain. I liked it when you smiled and told me that when geese were migrating and one got hurt and couldn't go on, another goose or two flew down to stay with it until it got better. Back then, I said I wished I had friends like that, and you kissed my forehead and told me that I did. Now, you were speaking to me in a voice like bullets falling to the ground, telling me that death was reality. I leaned over, picked up the mirrored ashtray you had sitting on the scratched-up table next to the couch, and dumped the few ashes that were in it on the ground. I could always vacuum later.
"It's a reality," I said softly, bending my arms around your neck, holding up the ashtray so you could see our faces reflected on the grey-tinted glass, the rainbow of braids I'd put in your hair, "but it's not the only reality."
The Lucas in the mirror grinned at me, and you reached up to wipe some flecks of ash away. "I think I like this reality..." You wrapped a braid around your finger, making a face. "Maybe not the hair, though."
It was our world for a few days--our reality, I guess. Your phone had been cut off right after I moved in because you hadn't paid the bill and Stella was still too upset to come see you. I was upset, too, but what could I say? You'd taken me in when I didn't have anywhere else to go. Besides, your friend had almost died. That's what the life of a musician had done to him. I couldn't really blame you for quitting the band, for not wanting to go through more years of skin and bones and graves.
Instead of worrying about things outside of the apartment, we rented more movies, ate popcorn and bowls of Phish Food ice cream, talked for hours. I put silvery eyeshadow on your eyes and gave you pigtails; you introduced me to different musicians, compared Kurt Cobain and the Grateful Dead and Counting Crows, drawing parallels that I could never have imagined. I flipped through one of your huge CD holders, pulling out Tori Amos's Under the Pink album, one of my favorites. I'd left all of my music at home.
"I didn't think you'd have anything like this," I said, putting the CD in your stereo, one of the few things in your apartment that was new. Bells for Her tinkled out. You shrugged.
"I don't listen to her much, but no one can deny she's had an influence. I mean, God, I have musical soundtracks in one of the cases around here." You winked at me, singing in falsetto. "'I feel pretty, oh-so pretty, I feel pretty and witty and briiiiiight! And I pity any girl who isn't me--'" You stopped when I started to sing along with you, raising an eyebrow as I threw open my arms dramatically. "You aren't half-bad, Lace. If you pushed a little harder, used more air..."
I laughed, shaking my head. "I dance at clubs, not sing. Besides, it's not something I'd want to get into. Too many people watching."
"Yeah," you said, pushing back your hair with one hand, looking at me. "Hey, that's right. You like to dance, don't you?"
I shrugged, humming along with Tori, bells and footfalls and soldiers and dolls, but you weren't so easily dissuaded. You picked up another case of CDs, black leather, and thumbed through it until you came out with a shiny silver disc.
"Let's see it," you said, sliding the CD into the five-disc player, Tori Amos coming to an abrupt stop. Billy Idol blared from the speakers, Dancing with Myself, the same song Gin and I had been jumping around to when we'd taken the picture that had gotten me kicked out of the house. I stared at you.
"Lucas, I don't--"
"Under the Pink isn't really something you can dance to," you said. You stood up, holding out your hand. "Come on."
I bit my lip. "Gin and I, the, um--you know, that picture--"
"I know." Your eyes were soft, your hand still held out to me. "That's why I think you should dance to it. Besides, what else can your mom do about it now?"
I stared at your palm, the fingers that were so much longer than mine, the cool white of your wrist. I put my hand in yours, and you pulled me up.
It took a while to make myself move at first, but your hands were guiding me, the look in your eyes. Green like a streetlight, flashing at me. Go. Go. Go. You pulled me forward and reeled me out with a curl of your arm, and I was laughing, my feet moving naturally. I wasn't dancing with myself; I was dancing with you. I could practically feel Gin's hands pushing on my back, telling me the same thing that your eyes were. For the love of God, Lace, go already! So I did.
We kept dancing when the CD changed over. I felt comfortable in my skin even though I had been eating more since I moved in with you, the same carefree spirit that had entered me when Gin swung me around the room entering me again. At some point the music changed and I was pressed closer to you, your hand at my back, spreading warmth through my whole body. The CD switched again, this time to Sinatra, making me laugh. You swept me around the room in a surprisingly good rendition of ballroom dance, leaning down to sing in my ear. Come fly with me, come fly, let's fly away...
When I heard Tori's voice again I realized how exhausted I was, my hair sticking to my forehead, my shirt clinging to my back. I pulled away from you slowly.
"You didn't say you knew how to dance."
You shrugged. "I've been to enough parties."
"Wearing a tuxedo?"
"My mom taught me that kind of stuff," you said, a little uncomfortably. "For school dances, or whatever."
"You're really good," I said softly. There was a strand of hair hanging in front of your eyes and my fingers itched to brush it back, to feel your skin against mine again.
"Thank you," you answered, and your smile was back. "She was better."
I think it was that night that I really realized how special you were, how just being around you could make me feel so much better about myself. When I was curled up on your sofa, I didn't think about my mom, the way it felt when she hit me that day, how her eyes turned into the black eyes of a snake, predatorial. I thought about what we were going to have for dinner that night, if the there was enough batter for pancakes, how I could make you laugh, see that smile on your face again. My stomach had settled down; my urge to throw up, the one that had plagued me the first few days, had faded into a small tickle in the back of my throat.
I'm not sure why I never thought to ask you how you'd made out after your mom died, who you'd stayed with. You were just fourteen years old; it wasn't like you could have had the apartment that far back. I was braiding your hair, I was dancing to Sinatra; there wasn't any room in my head for that sort of thing.
But the answer came, as all the bad answers inevitably do. It came in the form of a boy at your door, a bit older than you, skinny but broad-shouldered, with sharp teeth and strong-looking arms. His name, as I would find out soon enough, was Eli.
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