Mom won't stop looking at me with this tender, concerned look on her face. It's making me crazy. "What?" I ask, no attempt to hide the annoyance in my voice or wipe the scowl off my face.
It's a sign of how gentle she's being with me that she doesn't remark on my tone. "I was just wondering when you'd started biting your nails again," she says, still not moving her eyes away from mine. I move my finger from my mouth. I hadn't realized I'd been doing it, honestly. With a shrug I tell her it must be finals stress. She finally looks down at the stack of mail in her hands again and says, "Don't work yourself too hard," which is hilarious and totally not something I'm even capable of doing. It's something she'd never say to me if she hadn't witnessed my break up breakdown.
This is why I hate crying in front of people, besides it being completely embarrassing. I hate the delicate handling like I may break, the pitying looks. It does nothing to help and everything to remind me of the feelings I'm trying to ignore.
My hand almost drifts to my mouth again, but I recognize it this time and stop myself. I spin my phone around on the table instead, looking at the sandwich I'm supposed to be eating but don't even want. I don't know why I bothered making it. For some reason eating has been a total chore. Everything tastes like cardboard and I have to chew it so long before I can convince myself to swallow that it becomes a gluey mush in my mouth. I stop spinning my phone to poke at the bread. If my mom weren't in here with me I'd just throw it away and go back to hiding in my room, but I'm in no mood to have her go in on me about wasting.
Dex comes into the kitchen for a drink, sitting down at the table with us after he's poured his glass. I watch him watch me play with my food. "Are you going to eat that?" he asks. Shaking my head, I slide the plate over to him and he shrugs and takes a huge bite. "Ugh. Too much peanut butter," he says, mouth full, pushing the sandwich away.
"One of you better finish that," Mom says, still looking down at whatever she's reading. Dex rolls his eyes, but pulls the plate back anyway. After he swallows he starts talking to Mom about how he found a professor doing really cool research who he'd like to work with. Mom's all smiley and proud even as she's saying it's probably better to focus on his courses his first year. I wanna barf. Dex is explaining whatever it is this guy has pioneered in the field of neuroscience, and I'm about to leave them to their talk when I'm reminded suddenly that I'd wanted to ask Mom about something Jonah said that's been bugging me.
"Hey, speaking of brain…science stuff," I say, interrupting Dex who gives me this look like, really? "Do antidepressants make people act weird? Like, different?"
She looks at me with obvious concern again. "Depends on what you mean, I guess."
"Like, you know," I say, waving a hand around. "Doing stuff they wouldn't otherwise."
"Some antidepressants can cause varying degrees of mania in some people," Mom says, folding up a paper and putting it back in its envelope. "And that, of course, lends itself to impulsive, pleasure seeking behavior."
I frown a bit, considering all of this. My deepest knowledge of mania comes from my dad's depiction of my mom in his book, and though Jonah said his pills made him feel "weird" he didn't seem to be acting anything like she did on those pages. I wonder about what kind of weird would make him start seeing me and then abruptly cut it off. It seems like bullshit to me.
Mom wants to know why I'm so interested in this topic and I say it was something I'd read. Dex raises an eyebrow and asks in a skeptical tone what I'd been reading. I tell him to eat his sandwich. "Play nice," Mom says, picking up her vibrating phone. She answers it, getting up from the table to take her call outside the kitchen. Dex waits for her voice to fade away before taking the sandwich to the trash.
"So," he says, sitting back down. "What were you really asking about?"
"What do you mean?"
"Uh, I mean I know your interest in pharmacology only extends to stuff that gets you high."
I roll my eyes. "You don't know me."
"Please," he says. "Now tell me."
I look at his face for a moment and can tell he isn't gonna drop it. I sigh and tell him about Jonah's pills and anxiety and all the tragic, gross details of our break up.
"To be clear," Dex starts, looking at the ceiling, "only one of you thinks of this as a break up." In response I lay my arms on the table and rest my head on them, face down. Dex clicks his tongue and says, "Come on." I move my head so I can look at him. His face is pained, not like the pitying look from my mom or the troubled look Dad's been fond of lately, but like it hurts him to have to be the one telling me this. "Be real, Mica. This was a mess from the beginning."
"I didn't hear you objecting before," I say, speech muffled by my sleeve.
"What, like it would've stopped you? I was saving my energy." He shakes his head. "But since I have your ear now, you should know that I think people who prey on those younger than them like that are gross."
I sit up. "Okay, whoa. I wasn't being preyed on. I pursued him. And god, he's only like four, four and a half years older than me."
"So he's halfway done with college and you're a high school freshman. Yeah. Totally equal footing," Dex says. "He should've known better than to take advantage of a fifteen year old girl's crush on him."
"That's what he said," I mumble.
Dex sighs. "Sounds like he's trying to make himself feel better about being gross."
My eyes are filling up with tears, so I start to blink really fast and look down. When I've got it together again, I glance at my brother. There it is on his face, finally, that awful so-sad-for-you look. "That's the thing that sucks most," I say before I can stop myself. "I don't think he needs to feel better about anything. I feel like a problem he's solved. I feel like he's fine now and I'm completely not, and it's killing me."
Dex just watches me and we're both quiet and uncomfortable. He twists his mouth around like he's searching for something to say. Finally he's like, "Listen, he did you a favor. He's not worth all this grief." I look away and he sighs yet again. "Seriously, I don't know why you're so geeked on these basic white boys anyway."
I smile, despite still feeling shitty. "Did you forget your father is white? Don't be racist."
"Okay, I know you're joking so I won't explain why that's not racist," he laughs. "And white dad aside, don't you forget we're both still black."
"Says the one with blue eyes," I tease, unable to resist. He pretends to look for something to throw at me. Dex hates being reminded of his yellowness.
I'm laughing and he smiles at me. "You feel better now?"
"Maybe after a bowl," I say.
He rolls his eyes. "Of course."
"You really should give it a try."
"No thank you," Dex says. "I can't help but associate weed with Dad, like, making lame jokes and it just turns me off to it all."
"Again, that's because you haven't tried it yet," I laugh. "Come on, I have a little."
"Maybe some other time," he says, getting up from the table, "But probably not. Enjoy yourself. I'd go outside instead of the attic if I were you, though."
I watch him leave, marveling that he even knew about my smoking spot. He really does have me figured out, I guess, just like everything else he's ever studied.
I've taken my last final. Freshman year is over. I feel like it should seem more significant than it does. Instead all I can think about is what a mess this whole year has been, from all the stupid work I didn't do to dealing with Rob's garbage all year and now the pathetic wreckage of my heart. Surely tenth grade can't be any worse, I think, checking my grade on my English final posted on a list on our classroom door. It was a total cakewalk, honestly, since I was forced to catch up with all the work so recently and everything was still pretty fresh in my mind. I made an A, but my overall grade hasn't moved higher than a C. Whatever. I just pray I don't even have to see Mrs. Behrman next year.
"Hey!" I hear Moira say behind me. I turn and say hey back, smiling in a way I'm hoping hides how awkward I feel. I've definitely been avoiding her and it's all her dumb brother's fault. I wish he knew how thoroughly he's ruined my life. "How'd you do?" she asks, pointing at the list just as Alissa walks over to join her.
I glance at Alissa to acknowledge her presence, but that's all she's getting. "Very nearly have a B overall," I tell Mo.
"Yay!" she cheers, clapping for me. Alissa snorts. I continue not speaking to her.
"Couldn't have done it without you," I say, meaning it. My stomach flip-flops a little remembering Jonah was the only reason I let her help me.
"I'm just glad they can't kick you out now," Mo says, laughing.
Alissa looks at me with a dumb smile on her face. "You know, I'd been wondering something for a while. About how they say ninety-nine point nine percent of our seniors go on to college? I figured that point one percent must be, like, being all European and taking a gap year or like going off to work with refugees for a while or something. Now I'm thinking, maybe it's just people like you who have no chance of getting accepted anywhere."
"Alissa," Moira says. "Quit it."
"I'm just saying." She looks at Mo all innocently, then faces me again. "You have to have like the lowest average in the entire school."
"Ooh, what do I win?" I ask with feigned excitement. She shakes her head at me. I smile sweetly at her. "It's hilarious you think I care about any of this. It's hilarious you care so much, actually."
"Caring about my future is so deeply uncool, right?"
"I didn't say that," I snap. "But getting to college isn't the only thing that matters in life, you know. What if I don't even wanna go? My dad dropped out of college, actually, and his life didn't implode after."
Alissa nods. "I didn't know that about your dad. That makes so much sense."
"Stop," Moira says, more insistently. Alissa quiets, but she's still looking at me with her eyes narrowed. I smirk at her and start walking away, motioning for Mo to follow but of course Alissa comes along too. I have never met a person more determined to be where she isn't wanted. "So what are you doing tonight?" Mo asks me.
I try to think of something because I know she's gonna ask me to hang and I know I really don't want to. What if I go over to her house and he shows up? I would have to kill myself. "I don't know yet," I say.
"Do you wanna come over later?" she asks, and inside I'm like fuck even though I knew it was coming. I look at Alissa and she seems pissed not to be included, which almost makes me say yes. "Well," I start.
"Ay yo!" Alex yells from down the hall. She and Loren are waving at me. I tilt my chin up at them.
"You're coming out with us tonight," Loren calls, still loud even though we're all approaching each other now. "No excuses."
I stop walking and let them finish the rest of the distance, looking at Moira who seems a bit bummed. "I mean…" I trail off, moving my eyes to Loren.
She takes my hand and squeezes it. "You have to," she says. I can tell she means I need this to get in a better mood and stop thinking about Jonah so much, but am grateful she doesn't make it too obvious what she's hinting at with Mo right there.
"Chelsea's end of year celebration," Alex adds. "You can't miss it."
"Do you mind?" I ask Mo, so glad I have a concrete reason to turn her down now.
Mo smiles at me. "No, it's cool. Maybe we could do something tomorrow."
"Yes, definitely," I say, letting Loren pull me away. "After Dex's graduation, okay?" She nods and waves at me as Loren links arms with me and starts gabbing in my ear about our plans for the night.
My dad picks me up a little bit later, because Dex and all the other seniors were done last week and I'm still not trusted on the train alone somehow. Little do they know. Loren comes with so we can go out together later, and Dad is all asking how it feels to have our first year of high school done and she's chatting with him and being perfectly charming. I let her soak up the attention because I don't really feel like talking.
"So Loren, can you tell me who this mystery boy is who had my daughter crying? Since she won't tell me anything anymore, apparently."
I look at Loren in the backseat like, don't you fucking dare, and she smiles evilly at me. "I'm sworn to secrecy, sir, sorry," she tells him. He jokingly offers her twenty bucks to tell, and she replies her price is a hundred, at least.
Loren spends the hours before the party trying to get me hype for it, going through my clothes trying to pick an outfit for me when I'm just like, why bother? She takes off her shirt and pulls on one of mine. "Mica, this is supposed to be making you feel better."
"It's not," I admit. She throws a dress at me and it lands on my head.
I wish I hadn't had to tell her what happened with Jonah, almost. If I'd never let her know I'd finally spoken to him I could've pretended it just slowly faded away, or even that I'd ended it myself. I just had to send those dumb texts.
"You need to get very drunk tonight," Loren says, and I finally start thinking maybe she's right and that's exactly what I should be doing.
We go to the party with Alex and this guy Justin, who is totally into her, just because he's got a car and doesn't drink. Whoever Chelsea is, she's invited a ton of people, more than usually show up from our school for this kind of thing. Either a lot are from other schools or Northland kids relax their usual no fun rule as soon as summer vacation starts.
"Percy's here!" Loren squeals. She grabs my hand and I take Alex's so we can snake through the crowd to get to him. He says someone from his school told him to come when we ask what he's doing here.
"Thanks for the invite," he jokes, nudging Loren. She wraps an arm around his waist and if he weren't dark brown he'd be blushing, I'm sure.
That Justin guy comes over with a bottle of something clear he presents to Alex like he's a waiter, and we get to work on it. More people we know from school join us, a few at a time until we've taken over this section of the room, everyone crammed together on the couch, three people squished on this armchair and more using the coffee and end tables to sit on. Everyone distracting everyone else, I start drinking more than my fair share, very quickly. Alex notices, at least, and tells me to slow down. I stop only to hit the bowl Percy passes to me.
It takes a lot more alcohol than usual for me to feel normal, that is sociable and happy to be here surrounded by people. By that point my head is all swimmy. "You okay?" Percy asks loud in my ear so I can hear him. Loren is sitting on his lap and I'm shocked he can focus on anything but not getting a boner. I wave my hand at him, tell him I'm fantastic. He doesn't look so sure, but says nothing else about it.
Alex, who is sitting on the coffee table, leans forward motioning for Loren and me to lean in too. "Rob and them are here. Don't look," she says.
I don't look, as instructed, and take another big drink. Loren on the other hand twists around in Percy's lap to see. She turns back to us and says, "Perce, go beat those guys up."
"What guys?" he asks, as if he'd actually do anything.
"Ignore her," I say.
"It's kind of a shame Crayon is such a creep," Loren says. "He's sort of decent looking, even with the lavender, bleached, used to be blue used to be orange used to be green hair," she laughs.
"Fucking gag," I say, looking at her like she's nuts which she obviously is. "He is, like, classically ugly."
We're pretty loud, so a lot of people hear us and laugh, even though they're asking who the hell Crayon is. Justin asks if we mean this guy David Zhang, a sophomore with green and blue hair, and Loren is like no, it's a white guy.
Someone changes the subject then, fortunately. Unfortunately, however, it's to start talking about how Alex and David are the only "cool Asians" at Northland. Alex and I both glance at each other in a way that says, "Here they go again." I've noticed sometimes white kids get real loose with their ironic racism when we're all drinking.
Alex shrugs it off pretty easily, even though she shouldn't have to. "I'm not a cool Asian at all," she says. "You didn't know I was in the National Spelling Bee in the fifth grade?" Then everyone's laughing again and asking her to spell stuff and I kind of start to hate them all for making her feel like she had to say that.
"What's wrong? You look mad," someone says to me.
"I'm just sitting here," I say. "That's just how my face looks."
I must sound angry because he leans away, holding up a hand like, wow, sorry. I stand up and suddenly feel twice as drunk. The room spins for a second. I grab a bottle a little less than half full and walk away to go outside, ignoring people calling my name. I have to walk past Rob and Crayon who both say something to me, sneering, but I've blocked them out. I leave the house and plop down on the stoop, looking up into the spinning sky thinking about how fucked it is we can't see any stars at night around here, and how that's just normal to everyone.
The rest of the night I stay outside, until Alex, Loren, and Justin come out ready to leave. When he drops me off Loren kisses my cheek and says she loves me and hopes I'm feeling better. I want to laugh.
Dex is the only one awake in the house when I come in, and he says nothing as I literally crawl up the stairs unsure I could make it up standing. I'm out almost as soon as I get to bed, not even taking off my clothes or boots.
I'm woken up by my mom yelling my name from downstairs. Sitting up with a groan, I call back, "What?" She does that highly irritating Mom thing where she doesn't respond so I know she wants me to come and see what she wanted. "I'm coming," I yell, getting up to get ready for a day of celebrating Dex.
When I stand I'm immediately nauseated, and run to the toilet luckily making it in time. I've never actually felt hungover to the point of puking before. I guess I went a little too hard yesterday. I wash and get dressed and finally go see my mom who is like, "Oh, I just wanted to know if you were awake yet." I make an annoyed popping noise with my mouth and she tells me to watch it, so maybe she's done being nice to me.
Soon the whole family and Kwame are on the way to Dex's graduation. When we get there he scurries away from us to wherever he's supposed to be. Kwame makes polite small talk with my parents about how great Dex's speech is going to be, and how his first year of college was and all. I just sit there with my head in my hands, still feeling ill and wishing I'd had more water before we left.
"Hey, you okay sis?" Kwame whispers to me. I frown at his familiarity for a sec, but then figure he's probably the kind of guy that calls all brown girls 'sis'. Then I'm upset thinking he's talking about the break up and that Dex has been running his mouth about me, but he says, "You look a little sick," and I feel silly. I smile weakly and say I'll be alright.
Nobody holds applause 'til the end of the ceremony like we were told to. When Dex gets his diploma my parents and Kwame stand and cheer, but I feel too dizzy to join them. My phone buzzes with a message from Mo, asking what I wanna do later. I look at my parents actually crying, they're so proud, and I feel like total scum as I send her a text back that says my mom wants us to have a family night so I can't make it, heart heart heart, so sorry.