Authors: James Klise
Tags: #young adult, #teen fiction, #fiction, #teen, #teen fiction, #teenager, #angst, #drama, #romance, #relationships, #glbt, #gay, #homosexuality, #self-discovery
“Are you ever going to tell me about your mom?”
She looked down at my hand, stroking hers. “I wondered if you were ever going to ask.”
“I wasn’t sure you wanted to talk about it.”
“I’m not going to burst into tears, if that’s what you’re thinking. The reality of it sunk in a long time ago. What do you want to know?”
“I know she died in a car accident. That’s all.”
“That’s pretty much it. An ordinary school day. The principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker in my Social Studies class, and she called me to the office. My dad was waiting there. He took me out to his car. And he told me … I mean, she was a terrible driver. Always. It was a one-car accident—what they call a ‘no fault’ accident—and I remember thinking,
She died in a car and we’re in a car right now. And it’s nobody’s fault. Weird.
It was two years ago last November. Almost two and a half years now.”
“Does it seem like a long time ago?”
“The day of the accident seems recent. It’s so vivid. But when I think about how different things are now, it seems like forever ago. Another life.”
“Just being alone in the house with my dad. Being each other’s only company at dinner. Making small talk in the car. It’s a strange pressure I never expected.” She sipped at her wine, so I did too. She gave a regretful smile. “In retrospect, I guess I should have spent more time getting to know him when I was growing up. We’re bonding now, though.”
“And you have your siblings.”
“We’re spread out—nine years between my sister and me. And she’s on the West Coast. My mom was, like, the glue. My sister and I connected mostly through her. Now whenever my sister calls or visits, she seems more interested in talking to my dad. Grown-up stuff. Investments.”
“But she works in Hollywood. See, to me, that’s fascinating.”
“She’s in the business side, not the creative side. She raises the money to make movies. I bet there are plenty of times when she doesn’t even watch the finished movie.”
“Honestly, she’s not a happy person.”
“What about your brother?”
“He’s fantastic. Hilarious, more like my mom. The thing is, Mom died only a couple of weeks after he moved to Rome. He came home for the funeral, and he must have had so much to tell us, but all we talked about was our mom. It was all we could
about. We were planning a service. And now when I see him or email him, and he talks about his interesting life, I remember how we didn’t talk about any of it during that first trip back. It was the first time I realized that there’s, like, a filter. And there probably always was, always
a filter between people, no matter how close you are. I never knew that before. Oh, man—am I rambling? Stop me.”
“No, this is what I wanted. To know you better.”
“Okay. Let me think.” She seemed to focus on the orange-colored lampshade across the room. Funny what a person looked at when there weren’t a lot of choices. I kept staring at her. In the dim light, she looked prettier than ever.
“The whole thing was surreal. At the time, everything seemed like a movie. We had to dress a certain way for the funeral. We had to act a certain way at the dinner table. I’m not sure if it was respect or expectation or what. But I felt like I was playing a role. And I also kept thinking about how quickly the car accident had become a permanent part of my life. It became a
, an unchangeable part of her life story. And mine. We spend so many years trying to imagine what it would be like if our mom or dad died, and then when it happens, it’s like, okay,
is what it’s like. And not only that, but
, once and for all, how that part of my life will go.”
“It was surprising to me how much thinking I did about it, in addition to just processing it emotionally and being sad.”
“And, God, there was one other thing.”
“It’s embarrassing.” She sat up. “Let’s play more cards.”
“Just tell me.”
“Okay, um,” she said, settling back. “After my mom died, I was, you know, obviously upset. I was so upset, in fact, that my hair literally began to fall out. It came out in
every time I brushed my hair. Bizarre, right? And I went to my dad in a panic, and he took me to a doctor and to a psychiatrist, but nobody knew how to help me. It just …” Her voice cracked. “It just kept happening. Even the hair on my legs stopped growing. It was so … weird.”
“You must have been really stressed.”
“Tell me about it. Within a few weeks of my mother dying, I lost about half my hair! And it still kept happening until I was nearly freaking
Eventually I had to wear a shitty wig for about nine months, until my body calmed down and my hair began to grow again.”
Now she was crying. I pulled her toward me. “It must have been awful. I’m really sorry you had to go through that.”
“I can’t believe I told you. It’s the last thing I ever wanted you to know about me—that I was a complete weirdo bald freak!”
“I’m glad you told me. Hearing that story makes me love you even more.”
She looked at me. “You
She was still crying a little when we kissed again. I tasted the salt on her face.
I do love her.
We didn’t need the rest of the awful wine. The rain outside fell and fell, and the room was humid and cool.
She reached under my shirt and ran her fingernails across my back, which felt terrific. I closed my eyes, but Celia fell asleep first. It seemed like such a grown-up experience—a luxury, having her sleep in my arms. I loved smelling her hair, feeling the touch of the whole length of her, warm and soft, pressing against me.
An ancient memory surfaced, out of nowhere, of crawling into my parents’ bed when I was very young, taking a spot between them, enjoying their body heat and the comforting sound of their breathing. Falling asleep, snug between their beating hearts.
My head was spinning from the wine, but I smiled. I thought:
This is what intimacy feels like.
I had forgotten.
After Mexico, Chicago felt gray and wet and heavy.
We landed at O’Hare airport, where a shiny black car picked us up. It was late afternoon; traffic inched along with too many stops. Nobody said anything. We were tired from the flight. I actually looked forward to being home, returned to the quieter life I was used to. Plus, after days of pills and headaches, sleeplessness and sore shoulders, I needed a break. My vision was getting blurry.
It was officially spring, but it hadn’t warmed up for good. The trees didn’t have leaves yet, and ugly muddy patches lined the sidewalks. It was strange to be back after being so far away.
When the car pulled up in front of our apartment, I discreetly squeezed Celia’s hand before getting out. I would see her in the morning at school, but I would miss her tonight. This thought cheered me.
I said, “Dr. Gamez, that was the most amazing week of my life.”
And I repay your generosity by stealing from you and lying to your daughter.
He shook my hand, formal as always even after spending a week together. “Great having you with us, Jamie. Please thank your parents for trusting me with your care.”
I took my duffel bag inside and found everyone waiting in my grandparents’ kitchen.
The kitchen was decorated with balloons. The table was set, with a red tablecloth we normally reserved for Christmas.
“Let’s eat!” my mother said. In an email she had promised a special dinner to celebrate my return, but I was slightly horrified now when my eyes focused on the table—Old El Paso tacos with their unnatural yellow shells. The ground beef was unseasoned, in consideration of my grandparents. Cheddar cheese from Wisconsin. A bottle of hot sauce. And a big pot of Minute Rice on the side. We sat down to eat.
“You know what’s interesting?” I said at one point, “Mexican food isn’t really like this. I didn’t see one hard taco shell the whole time we were there.”
My dad looked surprised. “What did you eat?”
“Lots of those corn crackers, I bet,” my grandfather interjected. He called tortilla chips “corn crackers.” He didn’t know better. He called granola bars “cookies.” When it came to keeping up with food lingo, my grandparents gave up in about 1978.
“Some tortilla chips.” I nodded. “And rice, beans. Lots of fish and chicken.”
“You got sun, but you look tired,” my grandmother said. “Like you could use a good meal. I should have made pot roast.”
“This is perfect. Just what I wanted.” I couldn’t help but rub my eyes. “How’s business?” I asked my parents.
My parents looked at each other but didn’t say anything. “Tell us about the clinic,” my mother said.
My father nodded eagerly. “Did you save anybody’s life?”
“No, Dad.” The best strategy was to downplay the volunteer aspect of the trip. “It was a community clinic—a free clinic. Mostly it was just talking to people, running errands for Dr. Gamez and the other doctors. I mopped floors and washed dishes.”
My grandmother perked up. “Hell, I could do that. Maybe I should take a fancy trip to
The comment hung in the air, and I noticed some tension. “So what’s been going on here?”
Nobody said anything.
“How’s business?” I asked my dad again.
“Slow, actually. It’s been a little slow.”
“Well—” my dad said, shrugging at his plate.
“Anyway,” my mother interrupted, “I bet the trip did wonders for your Spanish.”
I nodded, but in fact, I hadn’t spoken more than a few sentences of Spanish the whole time. I wanted to say something truthful about the experience. “The thing is, where we were on the Yucatán, the people are very poor.” I described the cinder-block houses, with their altars and Christmas lights, and the general poverty I saw in the villages. “It’s not like anything we see here.”
“Not like anything
here,” my dad said.
“Makes you appreciate what you have, I hope,” my grandfather said. “At your age, it’s important to learn the concept of …
.” He said the word like it was a scientific process.
“Gratitude,” my mother corrected.
“You look like the dead,” my grandmother said to me. “Did chickens keep you up at night?”
“I feel fine,” I lied. I could barely focus, and my shoulders felt bruised.
Once I felt that I had described the trip to everybody’s satisfaction, as well as underscored my
for my own circumstances, I excused myself. I went to my room and closed the door. I was never more excited to see my familiar little bed.
My forehead throbbed, but I had one essential chore to do before sleep. I went to my duffel bag on the bed and opened the zipper. My travel clothes smelled rank. I threw them into a pile near the door—everything except for one clean sock, curled in a tight white ball. I held it in my lap for a second before unfolding it and shaking the pills onto my black bedspread. There were two dozen left, a constellation of bright blue stars against a night sky.
Before leaving Mexico, I almost flushed them down the toilet. It didn’t seem possible to make it across the border without the customs police discovering them. But then I remembered that Dr. Gamez had brought them to Mexico without incident. Maybe, since these drugs weren’t on the market, they weren’t illegal yet. From the perspective of customs, they didn’t even exist. Besides—worst-case scenario—if the customs police found them, I would have looked to Dr. Gamez to explain it all away. I would have had some explaining to do myself, of course, but I was willing to take the risk.
Risk. The price of admission to Planet Hetero.
I guided the pills, two and three at a time, into the plastic Army tank and returned it to the bookshelf. Back where it belonged, newly stocked with ammo.
I was still staring at it when my left arm flinched, a kind of spasm. My knuckles hit the dresser.
I took a step backwards. You know your body is beyond tired when you lose control of a limb.
Then it happened again—my forearm jumped, just for a split second.
I needed to sleep. Without even removing my clothes, I collapsed into bed and trapped my crazy arm under the pillow to hold it still.
I closed my eyes and thought about Celia. I missed her already.
Does she still like me?
I had let her down in Mexico, no question, but she seemed to believe my excuses. We had experienced so much together in a week. At this point, there was nobody in my life I felt closer to. Celia had talked so candidly about her mother’s death, and her grief and her hair, that I knew she wasn’t pushing me away. I knew that if I could hold her interest a little bit longer, the pills would kick in and I would be an excellent boyfriend.
I wanted to buy her a present. Something significant, to convey my thanks for the trip. She’d always been so generous with me. A piece of jewelry would do the trick, but it would require more money than I’d ever had. How could I ask my parents for money to buy jewelry for a girlfriend I wasn’t allowed to have?
A sound came from the window. Two quick, deliberate knocks. I got out of bed, shuffled across the room, and lifted the shade.
Good old Wesley!
I turned the lock and lifted open the sash, hoping the noise wouldn’t be heard from the living room. “Hey,” I whispered. “Good to see you!”
“Dude, I have to say, you’re almost
. If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d never believe it. C’mon.”
“Hold on a second.” I put on my sneakers and grabbed a sweatshirt.
I am going to be back in bed in ten minutes.
I pulled the window closed behind me, leaving only a crack for my return. We darted across the back grass and out the alley gate. A dark green Toyota Corolla was parked behind our garage, hazard lights blinking. The hubcaps were laced with rust.
“Whose car is this?”
Wesley grinned. “My cousin’s.”
I peered into the car. “Mimi’s family? Is she here?”
“Nah, different cousin. Let’s go.”
I opened the passenger-side door. “Wait a minute. Who’s driving?”
“I am.” He got into the driver’s seat—a full year away from taking Driver’s Ed, much less having a license.
are? Since when?” I slid into the seat next to him and before I could protest, he had the key in the ignition and we were on our way.
I fastened my seat belt with unusual
Wes pulled out of the alley, made a couple of fast turns, and then we were heading down Sheridan Road, as normal as anybody. We drove past the currency exchange, Payless Shoes, the liquor stores. Boring storefronts I’d passed for years took on an edgy new glamour with Wes behind the wheel.
I had to shout over the radio. “When did you learn to drive?”
“Over break! You’re not the only one to have a few adventures this week.”
When Sheridan Road turned to Broadway, I thought about my vow to be back in bed in ten minutes. “How far are we going?”
“Up to you. I was thinking the lake. Foster Avenue beach!”
“Can we turn the radio down a little?” My head felt like it might explode.
He reached for the dial but didn’t seem to lower the volume.
I saved my questions for the red lights; it didn’t seem wise to distract Wesley when the car was moving. “So your cousin lets you drive his car? That’s cool.”
“He didn’t exactly sign a permission slip.”
“But he gave you the keys?”
Wesley’s shrug was kind of a dance move. “It’s an extra set.” He reached over and slapped the back of my head. Playful, but it stung. “Relax!” he shouted.
Then my left arm flinched again. Shot up big time, like ballplayer shaking off a cramp.
“Whoa! Down boy.” Maybe Wes thought I was trying to punch his shoulder.
“Heh heh,” I said. This spasm thing was freaking me out.
Something was different about Wesley, too. He was so charged, like his energy level had been switched to turbo.
After cruising down Broadway for a couple of miles, we turned east on Foster and drove to the empty parking lot near the beach. The lot was so full of potholes that Wesley had to cut back and forth like a slalom skier. He finally cut the motor and I jumped out, relieved to be out of the car and on my own feet. The water was black and choppy and loud.
“So what’s been going on?”
“Look at your watch,” he said. “What’s the time say?”
“Exactly. I knocked on your bedroom window at
eight forty-five. Fifteen minutes from that moment to now.”
He smiled and grabbed me by the shoulders. “Look around! We’ve got the car keys, we can
. This is what it’s all about—being a teenager.”
“What? Stealing cars and sneaking out without your parents knowing?”
“Freedom, dude!” He jumped up and down. “Freedom!”
“You’re going to lose your freedom pretty quick if you act like a lunatic.”
I followed him to the rocky shoreline. We scrambled over the first section so we could get closer to the water. The wind was blowing and I could feel the spray when the waves crashed. Wes was picking up little rocks and throwing them into the lake. He had a quick, determined pace, picking up and throwing in rapid succession as if he had a job to do.
“So,” I said, “this is what life’s like off the pills, huh?”
“Baseball tryouts begin tomorrow, am I right?”
“After school, my friend,” he said. “I’m ready for all the lunges and wall-sits the coaches want to give me.”
I nodded. If he acted this crazy at tryouts, he would never make it past the first cut.
“Freedom!” he shouted again, as if reading my thoughts. “I’m all about freedom these days.”
“Quit jumping in my face.” I didn’t mean to be crabby. I just wanted to be in bed. “You sure you feel okay?”
, dude,” Wesley said. “Like the gates have been opened and my brain can run free.”
“That sounds a little intense.”
He looked at me sideways, momentarily somber. “Just—just forget about it.” He threw rocks for another minute without speaking. “So how was Mexico?”
“Wes, it was unbelievable. Celia’s father rented this amazing resort, the whole thing. This romantic old Mexican estate that’s totally renovated, first class. We had it all to ourselves. And the swimming pool was so cool, like something you’d see in a James Bond movie.”
“Her dad sounds all right.”
“He really is.”
“Letting you and your girl hang like that.”
“Well, you know, we didn’t rub it in his face. He didn’t see us making out or anything. We all had separate rooms.”