Inanimate Objects with Party Hats
The town holds a flashlight vigil for Melissa six months after she died—and our entire high school is clumped and sweated and reciting prayers led by the church beneath a milky, leaking moon, and afterwards Cody and I break into the abandoned Curry Nursing Home. In the crumbling bathroom we chant “Bloody Mary” and stare deeply into our own eyes. The mirror trembles in its rusted frame, but nothing comes. We shine lights into the bowels of the basement, over the rusted corpses of old machines. The walls bleed onto the cots. On the count of midnight, we yell “Melissa!” and look around the room to see if anything shudders, moves. We vow to avenge her, to raise her from the dead, but leave before the cops come.
“If we were in the Big Crunch instead of the Big Bang,” Cody says, sliding into his car, “where our entire universe is contracting instead of expanding, everything would happen in reverse. Melissa would be lying on the hillside beneath the tractor, would awaken and shove the tractor with superhero strength upright. She’d ride down the hillside backwards, where people would still be partying. ‘See ya,’ she’d say, dismounting. Then she’d regurgitate beer back into the can. She’d get sober and go home.”
“It’s not like that,” I say, and he starts the engine.
I stare out the window, keep thinking of the first time I met Melissa, when we were fourth graders and both wanted to play with the same girl at recess—a mixture of make believe and tag that involved scrambling up the hot metal slide, sliding down and scraping our knees in the dirt. We laughed so hard we fell onto the grass, and I cut my wrist on a small piece of glass because the playground used to be a dump site in the 1970s, and Melissa said it was the mark of Bloody Mary on my wrist and then we all repeated three times because Melissa could make anything luminous.
Once we hit Route 657, we curve alongside the Monongahela River with the hermaphrodite fish, old car accidents, steel mill scrap metal, now buried in the mud. Eventually we pass Melissa’s yellow doublewide and the windows echo with our chalky headlights. There’s still the burn pile like exploded funeral prayers on every surface of the lawn; the sheep spread over the hillside like a torn open sofa. The mines in the valley boil with spotlights and steam. Like spinning tops. Drivers pass and never know someone died out here. We do doughnuts in the empty snowed-over lot like a tilt-o-whirl, faster and narrower each time.
“She’ll never age. We’ll all be older, and she’ll still be sixteen,” Cody says to me, accelerating, braking, repeating.
I tell him to slow down. I say pretty please with a cherry on top.
“We’ll never know what she’d have been like at twenty-one, or thirty, or sixty-five.” He accelerates. The dice knock together on the rearview mirror.
The accident is quick. When the station wagon finally hits a patch of black ice beneath the snow, we skid, smash into the light pole; I fly up and out like a magician sheet pulled out from under a neatly set table, like a parachute at the moment it crackles, catches hold of the air. I don’t remember the windshield shattering. I don’t feel the cold panel against me. It’s all stop motion—slowed down seconds. But then I’m on the pavement, feel a pressure, a pop, a heat in my leg, surrounded by a pile of aquamarine jewels. I don’t feel the pain until several minutes later. And I don’t think of Cody at all until he’s in front of me, bleeding and crying and wet, but I don’t know where the water came from.
And he’s saying, “Sorry. Sorry,” like a parrot. “Shut up!” I’m saying. “Just shut up.” But he just keeps going, sorry sorry sorry. The car is smoking purple and blue against the light pole, but it’s a miniscule trail against the heavy smokestacks of the mines, the nuclear power plant. Finally he lays down beside me, and I’m yelling for him to call someone. There’s a spreading grease stain the shape of a heart. “I don’t know what to do,” he says, blood smeared against his eyebrow, his jaw. “I destroy everything I touch.” And the oil stain spreads from a heart to a gap, and I can’t tell what comes next. Just lights—bright, sharpened lights, like a spaceship lightly floating down upon us.
The hospital is cold, vacant. No one lives here anymore; our county is out of coal, jobs, uncontaminated water. The mines are closing down and the town bristles with unfilled and oversized buildings, playgrounds, schools. With so few patients, the hospital can’t even stay open without a merger with the city hospital. After surgery, the doctor in his white button-down finishes his exam, says, “It’s a miracle that you have no head injury. Brain damage is irreversible, you know. The head is like a watermelon. Remember that.”
“Yum,” I say, covering myself with the tiny gown they’d draped over me. They put pins in my leg, which keeps it swollen like a parade float. “No muumuu for me,” I’d argued, to no avail. “I don’t want to be another assembly line patient.”
“I don’t know where she gets this stuff,” my father says curtly to the nurse. “I’m a union worker for Christ’s sake.”
Out at the nurse’s desk, my parents wrench their hands and worry about deductibles. “We’ve got to get her through PT before Christmas,” my father grumbles. “Can she double up?” He looks like a skeleton in a suit, like my mother’s tiny toy captor, even though it is she who is the hostage. Back in the room, I pick at the fuzz balls on the cotton sheet, pull at the strings hanging off the weary gown. I throw everything in Cody’s direction.
“I keep seeing the entire accident in reverse,” he says, pauses. “Big Crunch style.”
I shake my head.
“Like, the way things are,” he says, “our universe is still expanding. But if the mass of the universe finally became too great for the expansion of the universe, everything would begin to contract. Like, maybe we’d experience time backwards, too. People born after the transition would accept it as normal,” Cody says. “Items would begin rotten or broken, then become whole, fresh, new. I think that’s our best bet for getting Melissa back.” He relocated to my cot, cozying up next to me, handful of Slim Jims like a flaccid bouquet. “We force the Big Crunch into play.”
“Get off of me with those Slim Jims,” I say. I haven’t totally forgiven him. “And by the way,” I say, “the first man to see me naked was that surgeon. Another wasted virginity down the drain.”
“You’ve got plenty left,” he says. “The important ones.” And I shove him off the cot like a kid on a swing.
“Now who’s being dramatic?” he says from the floor, knocking over the crutches.
“If we were in the Big Crunch, you’d be floating right back up onto the bed,” I said. “Like a boomerang.”
“LOL. ROFL,” he says, bending upwards like a goldfish flipped from its bowl. “Quit playing games with my heart,” and I throw the blankets over him.
I still dial Melissa’s number by mistake sometimes. “Hi Lexie,” her mother says, recognizing the number. “How are you, hun?” Mostly, we talk about the dogs, and whether the sheep are lambing, or if the field needs cut. Other times she says nice things like, “Melissa was lucky to have a friend like you,” words that should make me happy but just inflate my guilt. She has no idea that Melissa hated me when she’d died, that I am an imposter, a fake, a fraud. The night she died, my parents grounded me from going to the field party with her, and Melissa’d said, “God, you fucking ruin everything,” and worse things, too. She’d ended up going anyway. Everyone was drinking, and she and another kid rode a farm tractor up a hill. The grass was wet. The back wheel slipped, slid, and the tractor rolled on them.
Back home, post-surgery, I sit on our velour couch eating grapes and watching daytime soaps, which are not interesting, and I think that everyone and everything is terrible, and make an effort to externalize these feeling to anyone who will listen. “Stop milking it,” my mother says after my third week home. “You need to be in school.” Today she has spread the bills across the table like a professional poker player gone berserk.
“You know I’m lactose intolerant,” I say. I sink further into the couch, the habitat of living room, of endless soap operas and infomercials and stimuli overload. My mother shakes her head, picks up each bill like a polaroid photograph and studies the outsides before setting them down again in the exact same spot.
“You’re soymilking it,” Cody says when I tell him about it. I drive to school with my good leg, pick him up on the way. “Admit it.” His hair is mottled, raspy like a shorn animal. We travel from class to class together like lost wildebeests. Cody shouts: “Tiny Tim, coming through,” and “Damaged goods, right here. Move your asses.”
In sex-ed, Mr. Bard, who is also the computer teacher and the gym teacher, explains to us that condoms are said to be 98 percent effective, but, he counters, that’s not entirely true. “When you factor everything in, they’re really only about 50 percent effective. Would you coin toss for syphilis?” he says. “Or pregnancy?” The only way to stay 100 percent safe is to avoid sex until marriage, he explains. “So says the state.”
Cody leans across his desk, overtop his comic book, which is nested inside of his health book. “Melissa and I were going to do it, you know. Melissa wanted to.”
I roll my eyes. “She wanted her first time to be with Brad Thomas.” But then Cody looks away, and I say, “I’m joking. How should I know anything about Melissa’s sex pact with you?”
“No one can believe a word you say,” he says. “You’re a pathological Debbie downer. A psycho-sad Sally.”
He’s right. I am all of these things and worse. I get up to sharpen my pencil beneath the laminated posters of Bill Gates, Neil Armstrong, Nathaniel Greene, George Washington. I grind until it is a small, sharp weapon. Then I throw it, like a javelin, into the trash.
The bus ride home cuts through the outskirts of town—the part that looks like it’s attempting a prison break from the rest of town and is about to get caught. Melissa and I used to joke that someday the whole thing would be leveled to build another Walmart. Down the hill from the old middle school, half the buildings are sided in sheet metal, and a few are in different stages of collapse. The VFW sits smoldering and empty. A sign on a set of buildings reads “Tanning Booth” beside an office supply shop that closed five years ago. On Main Street, there’s still a hardware store and a motel bar. But really only the Dollar General and grocery stores survive there. That’s why Melissa and I always talked about leaving.
“Are you a chain store?” she’d say, brushing her hair up in a bun, unwrapping gum. “I didn’t think so. We don’t belong here.” If Melissa said something enough times, everyone eventually believed it. That was her gift.
In the evening, my father’s yelling to my mother about the messes, the clutter. “Can’t you keep the house for one day, in one piece?” My mother has taken apart the drawers of the Hoosier, spread the contents like a surgeon awaiting a serious operation.
“I’m depressed,” my mother yells, and my father groans, says back with a sneer, “I’m Laura. I’m depressed. I don’t like to pull my own weight.” Until finally my mother begins to cry.
“Well, she certainly can’t pull your weight,” I say, stepping between them, holding my cup of coke like a Molotov cocktail. The cupboards seem to shut on their own, like flaps on a pipe organ.
“This doesn’t involve you,” my father says, setting down the newspaper.
I watch my mother dissolve into the ether of her bedroom. And when she finally emerges, she eyes me over, still wearing pajamas, she says, “You’re like a bump on a log. Why don’t you do something good for people for once in your life?”
“I guess I’m just a terrible person,” I say, and my mother looks cold and hard at me for a moment before saying, “Maybe so.” This is a world with no alliances.
When I’m sure everyone’s asleep, I call Cody, ask him to come over. He walks through three fields and across the rusted-out railroad bridge to get here. It’s February, but he’s sweating. “I’d be hot at the arctic,” he says. “It’s in my DNA.”
I want to touch some part of him, to reduce myself to sensory input, to forget the events before him, so I pat the fabric of his shirt, repeat what’s written on it: “Throw me to the wolves.” He unpeels, and I give him my Nine Inch Nails shirt, the one I’ve been sleeping in for a week.
He smells like peat moss, like rich wet soil mixed with lemons.
“In Big Crunch world, doctors would assess your aching, cut-up leg, would un-pin it during their surgery and it would fracture. You’d get into the ambulance, where they’d take you to the scene of the accident. They’d lay you down in the lot, and suddenly you’d fly up, healed like a jubilee revival. Voilà! Perfect bones!” Cody’s excited now, talking loudly.
“Now I’m stuck with imperfect bones,” I say. “Thanks.”
He puts his hand over top of my mouth. I bite him just hard enough for it to go away. “Stop,” I say. He never used to be like this: accelerated, manic.
“But see, in Big Crunch world, we’d look forward to accidents. Accidents would be the answer to everything. Everyone would rise from the dead like a parade, all at once. Bullets would be pulled from the dead bodies, shucked back into guns, guns into holsters, and both the victims and the assailants would learn backwards into the daylight, smoke cigarettes, step back into their separate unmade beds in early morning to wait out the night.”
“You watch too many movies,” I say.
He asks how many days until I’ll be better in Big Bang time, leaning into me the way he used to do with Melissa. I don’t move, don’t bat an eyelash, just stare forward at the dwarfed eleven-inch TV inside the plywood entertainment center.
“You don’t smell like her,” Cody finally says.
I remember that smell: cheap body splashes, suntan lotion in the middle of winter. Vanilla lip gloss. No part of me could ever be like her. Melissa made us skinny dip in her above-ground pool. Melissa convinced us to sneak into a Christian goth concern in baby tees and black eye makeup. Melissa tried to ride an inner tube down the creek after a flood and fell off.
When Cody drapes himself overtop of me, I feel small like a dandelion, already consumed and warm beneath the body of a whitetail bedding down. I can smell his leather jacket, toothpaste, deodorant. My heart is racing, knocking against my body, and I try to slow my breathing. “I can’t breathe,” I hiss. “Too heavy.”
“This is what Melissa felt like,” he whispers, and I shove an elbow up at him.
“Fuck you,” I say. “Don’t say that.” I can’t see his face, I can only stare at the upholstery of the coach, the tiny TV flashing colors like a caged animal.
“Shut up,” I say. “Just shut up.” I am too afraid to let the feelings settle in one place. I prefer them to be jagged and in midair, like a flock of doves shot out of the sky, endlessly plummeting. For some reason, that image is comforting.
“You can crush me next, if you want. It’s just an experiment,” he says. But now that I’ve expressed dissatisfaction, I feel like I can’t renege, can’t expose my morbid curiosity. For a while, we hang out the bathroom window, smoke a joint from Grubber John, a tiny doobie full of skunk. Cody says he’s nearly tapped, asks if I’ll go by John’s house some time.
John was one of the few people in our town who everyone knew of. His family used to go to St. Mary’s, but after John’s brother died, they basically stopped all of that. The family owned about four hundred acres out by Ruby Mine. I’d seen John once at the grocery store, buying diapers and cigarettes and a jar of Jiff’s. He let me go first in line and smelled like burned sugar and sweat. Melissa and I used to call these sorts of interactions “close encounters.”
“He’s going to get you busted. Why do you mess around with him?” I ask Cody.
“General life dissatisfaction, is what my therapist says.” He puffs and passes.
“Oh, Freud,” I say. “That’s life.”
“I knew you’d understand. Come lay back on the couch and confess your sins.”
“I hate my parents,” I say.
“My dad’s not coming back home,” he says.
We lay there in a pile for a long time. His head buries in my hair. I fall asleep that way, feel safe and warm and undead, temporarily whisked away from the outside world. I wake up to the white noise of channel twelve, off-air. In a few hours, my parents will be awake, churning through their morning routine like the gears of an auger. In this way, each day is erased, or ignited, depending on which direction the universe is moving.
A month after the vigil, Cody and I return to the old Curry Nursing Home, but it looks like other people have broken through the rotted-out door, widening the hole like a jack-o’-lantern mouth. “What’s the point?” Cody says. “It’s not ours anymore.” He lights a joint on the cracked, jutted sidewalk, offers it to me. I use my crutches like machetes against the ivy vines, try to carve a space for us to sit. The sycamores are high and mottled white and grey overtop the driveway. Below them, hawthorn bushes, each branch doused in thick two-inch thorns.
“Do you think Melissa is still out there somewhere?” he asks. “Like, an aura or ghost?”
“We could do a séance,” I say, to humor him. “But she’s probably already at peace, and then it’d be like knocking on a door late at night. After everyone has gone to bed.” I don’t believe in séances or ghosts or auras. None of them have ever done a thing for me.
“I’ve always liked knockers,” Cody says.
“Hooters,” I say.
“Kahunas,” he says back.
“You like everything,” I say, and he shakes his head.
“Except the things I don’t like. So, the end.” He flicks the lighter. Today he’s rubbing dip and smoking, back and forth like blinking lights at a four-way stop. “I don’t know. It’s an experiment,” he says, motioning to his spit can. “Like, which one will kill me first.”
Across the valley, the new prison glows like a fallen meteorite. There’d been protests to keep it out, years ago when they’d proposed the penitentiary, but all that the state needed to say was “income generator” and “economy booster” and the town would have installed a nuclear warhead. “Maybe there’s an escaped convict squatting here as we speak,” Cody says, and I roll my eyes. “Rust Creek Chainsaw Massacre. Think about it.”
We are used for our resources—our land, our bodies, and what’s beneath them. Ruby Mine sits a few hills over, creased and folded between our hilltops and the West Virginia border. There are three main coal companies that bought up mineral rights in our county—they own nearly all of it but have only tunneled under about half. Longwall mining, mostly, but sometimes strip mines overtop areas where the coal sits higher, lighter. “My mother says strip mining is the worst kind of burlesque,” Cody says. “That stripping has never been so unsexy.”
We sit against the cold brick wall amongst the vines, staring out. Cody’s house is marked for tunneling in the next year, mine isn’t. There’s talk of rubber banding the foundation together, until the earth settles again, in order to save the house, but it’s expensive. Most families sell to the mines for scraps, move to West Virginia, where everything’s already been gutted, emptied, so land is cheaper. “They’ll stop before they get to you,” I always tell him, but that would mean my father would be out of a job. Cody and I will be seniors by then. It feels like this year will never end. That because I can’t possibly imagine a life outside of this town, that this life cannot possibly exist. But then, I could not imagine a life without Melissa, so now that it’s arrived, I feel like a space alien, a tourist in my own life, watching, gathering data.
I never felt a part of anything before I met Melissa. She was always giving—fifty cents for the machines, a T-shirt that would look better on me. In middle school, we would tell our parents we had an afterschool program and then walk around town instead, exploring abandoned buildings, the old movie theater attic, which was full of theater props from the 1980s, Freemason information packets. On a bathroom mirror, the words Rest Easy in marker. “This place is 100 percent haunted,” Melissa whispered, wiping it clean.
At Cody’s house, we watch TRL, Beavis and Butthead, whatever’s on and easy to ignore. When his mother arrives home from work in a navy suit like a stewardess, she says, “Did you manage to avoid cataclysm today?” And Cody agrees. “Today,” he says, wearily. “I did not go gentle. Cataclysm avoided me.” His mother is one of the few mothers who works, Cody says, because she likes to stay busy.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and Cody’s mother gives each of us a Sarris chocolate shaped like a rose. I bite into the thickest part of mine, savoring the way the chocolate clefts, so that I have two pieces. Cody unwraps and feeds his to his dog, Genghis. “I’m getting him used to caffeine in case he ever overdoses. Like ancient kings and poison.” He’s got the kind of mouth that curls up and out, a joker.
Poor Genghis stares up at us like a peasant.
“I’m bored,” Cody says, as though he can read my mind. “Do you want to go swimming?” It’s so cold that ice has formed a cataract overtop of the wider, slower parts of the creek. His arms are gangly, olive, commanding Genghis to sit, stay, roll over like an orchestra conductor. “One word,” he finally says. “Bathtub.”
I have an unopened bag of Skittles, a two liter of Mountain Dew. “I’m keeping my clothes on,” I say. The tub doesn’t take long to fill. I prop my broken leg on the ledge like a rifle. He opens the window, stuffs a ratty towel beneath the door to keep his mother from feeling the draft, the heat.
“I like it so hot it burns,” he says. “I hope you like burners.” His mother clangs dishes, pots on the other side of the door in the kitchen; I stare up at a painting of a ghostly woman holding flowers above the toilet, observing our every move. “Your mom’s got strange taste,” I say.
He leaves his underwear on. My shirt keeps bloating with air bubbles, I smooth them down so that my breasts look humongous, a hilltop of air. I eat only the pink, the purple Skittles. Leave the rest to drown in the tub. “No survivors,” I say, dropping a yellow, a green. I’m acting stupid. He tosses a mute, grey skittle my way. “Suck it,” he says. The lightness, airiness of his hair has vanquished, and he seems less like a Muppet, and more like a criminal.
I’m feeling the sugar rush, the airy caffeine hit.
No one has ever kissed me, or wanted to, for that matter. “I want to,” Cody says, tapping my good leg with his foot underwater, and I say, “Well I don’t.” But the next time he asks, a few minutes later, I say, “You can kiss me, but I’m not going to kiss you back.”
“Nah,” he says. “Some other time,” and I glare across at him, torso like a curled aquatic insect—skinny, pale. Finally, he surges his whole body towards me, splashing like an ocean surf. I still have candy in my mouth. And his kiss is exactly what I think it will be, like being submerged a second too long underwater without air. And I slowly leak into the water, every part of me, until my hair is all that’s left on the surface.
When I finally come up, inhale, I say, “You are a terrible kisser.”
“You know,” he says, smiling, “In Big Crunch time, you’d be born with all of the experiences in the world, and as time passed, you’d lose them: kisses, gifts, adventures. They’d all be snatched away. Think about that. But people, people would come back to you.”
We get good at TV. We are lottery telepaths, infomercial experts. My legs get sweaty against the leather and I try to act normal, at ease, when Cody drapes himself on top of me. I feel like an actress who has switched roles mid-scene, like Samson once the pillars have fallen. We leak into the couch. His fingers are on my neck, in my hair, the tiny ones at the nape that curl in the heat. Every touch is the first touch. Every attention, every flutter and pulse.
“Let’s just watch TV,” I say, because I don’t want to seem so needy, eager. And he’s still tracing letters on my arms, across my back. “Guess what I’m spelling,” he says.
“I don’t know.”
“If I take off your shirt, you’ll be able to tell,” he says.
“Whatever,” I say. “Shut up.” But I’m trembling and he can feel it. I try to think of something else negative to say. Something to really put him off.
“You’re so hostile. You’re like Russia.”
“My cold Russian heart,” I say. He sits up, lifts the edges of the shirt. Kisses my belly button. “Button is misleading,” he says. “Belly indentation,” he says. “Belly funnel.” I study his arms, his neck, the Simpsons shirt he’s wearing, Homer strangling Bart, Bart’s eyes bulging out.
“Belly pothole,” I say, covering my face with my hand.
“Look deep into my crystal belly,” he says.
He lifts the shirt another inch, and I push him away. My bra is yellowed and ripped on one side. I’m not allowed to have the ones with padding; I’m cold, and my nipples show it.
“Just one ta-ta,” he says. This isn’t new for Cody. Before me, he’d do these types of things with Melissa, and I’d sit on the couch pretending to be immersed in the show, drinking Mountain Dew. Filling myself. Melissa was bolder, brighter. She liked flashing truckers on the highway, flirting with cashiers. While I turned away, certain they’d understand that I was unlikeable, Melissa was excited by the possibility of affection, attention, newness, flaunt.
“Maybe if we smoke a joint first,” Cody says, laying out clear, white rolling paper. We lean out his bedroom window like vultures, precariously perched. It’s become routine, habit. But this time is different. When he finally kisses me, he passes the smoke directly into me. “Virginity lost,” he says, when we finally come up for air. “This game could be fun.”
I wonder if every person feels this ethereal excitement, if everyone questions what they’re doing and if they’re ready and how others will perceive them if they finally say yes—and the wavering flapping heat of it all, like sheets drifting on a clothesline. If so, it seems like my current understanding of the world is seriously misguided, like a mistaken Copernicus finally seeing the solar system in all its sun-centered clarity for the very first time.
We walk through fields to Melissa’s house the back way, past the Tucker farm and township storage site. My crutches sink into the clay soil. It’s all longwall here, so all we can see is the oasis of light late at night from the central offices in Sycamore, Hickory. “They’re beneath us right now,” Cody says. “We’re standing above the shafts.” Trees grow up like arm hairs, thin and crooked and sickly. All this ruined land.
“You said shaft,” I say, poking his shoulder.
“No one can stop them,” Cody says. “Not the zoning board, not the farmers, not our parents. Jesus, they’d be putting themselves out of business. Your dad, my uncles.”
“But that’s not fair,” I said, and he shrugs. We trudge up the steep ridge like we’d done a hundred times before with Melissa.
“The fair only happens once a year, and it is full of idiots.”
“Well, it’s not right,” I say.
Cody doesn’t say anything for a long time, and we cross the creek by Melissa’s house, up the hill where the tractor overturned. The sheep are on the same hillside as before, spread like scattered jacks. “Do you think someday someone can buy your human rights from you? Like, I can sell my right to vote if I don’t want it or I need some fast cash?”
“You’re a freak,” I say, but I want to kiss him again, that curly cue mouth, furrowed forehead. I lean away from him instead. It’s not the place. The tractor, the ruts, any remnant of the accident is grown over, healed. Trailers and barns pulse against the red sky like boxes at a hardware store. We walk from Route 354 to Route 56. Around here, the sky is always red, burgundy on cloudless nights from the drilling lights. The Red Sky Phenomenon, Cody calls it. But they don’t name anything around here, not even the roads: it’s 245, 219, 227, and so forth.
“Do you think places of tragedy hold onto negative energy?” he says.
He kisses me before I can answer. It’s just experimenting, refining, fusing. “Probably not,” I say, when he finally retracts. “There’s no evidence of that ever happening.”
“Ghost hunters,” he said, and I tell him that shit’s not real.
“The movie Ghost, then.”
“Also not real.”
“But there’s no proof that it’s not real.”
I’m not sure of anything, but standing in this spot, at night, beneath the red pulsing lights, I can’t help but think of the alternate timeline, the one where it is Melissa and Cody standing outside together, kissing, while I wait in the high grass. This is how things go, the way we are. Carla Strut gave a blowjob in the cemetery. Misty Wash had sex in a tool shed. People do things, advance like knickknacks on a board game. Two steps forward. Return to start. Lose a turn. Lose a life.
I reach over, kiss Cody’s cheek, move to his abdomen, then his waistline, weave my fingers inside, snapping the elastic of his sweatpants. “Ohh,” he says before I even touch him again. He makes those tiny, staccato noises, like a dove, like a sobbing child attempting to conceal its tears. But when I look up, I see that his head is tilted skyward, eyes squeezed closed, like he’s communicating with the moon.
When I finish, neither he nor I say anything. He pulls up his pants, I wipe my hands on the long grey grasses. We keep walking.
At home, my mother rages against the pots and pans, the greasy metal stove top before turning on the TV, and flipping through channels like a metronome, finally settling. She cries when The Price is Right comes on, when Bob Barker talks about his animal charity. “What on earth are you crying about? You don’t even know, do you?” my father says. She ignores him, shouts at the screen, “Try helping human beings for once!” I stay out of it. I spend most of my time in my room, listening to the radio, watching fleas leap from the bed to the carpet like tiny acrobats on springboards. I fill mayonnaise jar lids with water, leave the lamp on at night so they’ll be drawn to the light, will fall in.
With Melissa gone, the little things seem to bulge, to inflate, swell like orchestra notes in a hollow theater. I get a B on an English paper and cry in a toilet stall until someone notifies the school counselor. “I’m totally fine,” I say to her, from the other side of the aluminum stall door. “I just had cramps.” It’s similar with Cody, I guess. He storms out fifth period Spanish into lunch, deflating like a beach ball hurled against a chainsaw onto one of the plastic orange cafeteria tables. By the time I find him, he’s balled all of his tater tots into his fist. “Rage disbanded. It’s the worst day in history.” He shoves a Music Magazine towards me.
“The Holocaust was pretty bad, too,” I say, recovered, walking with him into the speckled beige hallway. “And Desert Storm. The worst of all storms.”
“Desert Storm was a war. You know that, right?” he says.
“It could have been a storm,” I say, but I turn away and stare at the vending machines, eyeballing the Little Debbie’s varieties: pumpkin muffin, Ho Ho, Twinkie, Brownie, trying to regain composure. I don’t care about his band.
“I don’t care about your band,” I say. I imagine that some people live their entire lives like this, saying exactly what they’re thinking.
The hall smells like trash and Bath & Bodyworks lotions. A few girls are in the bathroom, flushing, flushing, flushing. They emerge like white wraiths, doused in hair gel. All still together, all still immersed in their silly, silkscreen lives. “Melissa’s birthday is next week,” he says, finally, perking up. “Want to get stoned with me?”
The week is as slow as pond water. But finally, on Friday, we ride the bus to his house, our bodies smelling like stale diesel and cafeteria food by the time we exit. We lie on the couch for hours, immobile, watch the lights collapse as Cody’s mother shuts down for the night, loading the dishwasher, wrapping the leftovers with sticky strings of saran wrap. It’s finally March, and the weather has shifted. The nights aren’t so long. My bones don’t feel so malleable, and my cast comes off in a week.
“I think it’s great that you two want to honor Melissa,” Cody’s mother said. “It’s important to keep her memory alive.”
Cody and I are wearing pink and blue party hats that we found in a kitchen cupboard. We retreat like stretched elastic orbits, into his bedroom. Cody places his hat on the headboard of his bed. I put mine on my calculus book. We move things around, things that have no lives of their own, that might, if the world reversed, suddenly seize control.
“In Soviet Russia,” he says, snapping the elastic of his hat. “The party has you.”
Melissa liked to make that joke. And when she was around, my parents would actually joke back. She was not afraid of adults, or teachers, or the popular kids. She lived for those moments—while I hid or distracted myself.
“Night, kiddos,” Cody’s mom says, emerging from the bathroom, peeking in, “Let me know if you need anything.” She pauses. “If the mines offer us a deal,” she says, “we’re leaving this godawful place.” She closes the door to his room softly, like a maid.
“That’s what she always says.” Cody turns up the music, a rapid pulsing metal. He asks me to put on Melissa’s chapstick, the one he still has from nearly a year ago. I feel his hard on in my back when he wraps he arms around me. “I want to crush you,” he says. “Big Crunch Style. Like a trash compactor.” He moves across the room like an apparition. “Let’s play a game,” he says.
“Never have I ever?” I say, taking a puff, coughing from the ribcage. “Light as a feather?” I try to remember more games we played at sleepovers. Standing in the room beside him, I feel like Cody’s already changed. Like he’s passed from my dimension into a wiser, heavier one, and I’ve been left behind.
“Never have I ever,” he says, “seen a fully naked chick who wanted me to see her back.”
“You can see my back,” I say, “but that’s it.”
“You are a freckle factory,” he says. “You’re like a night sky prototype.” It’s maybe the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me. I let him trace me with his hands, above the clothes, then beneath them. Even as it’s happening, I have this understanding of how temporary it all is, even as we’re kissing. Affection is so impermanent, a series of well-meaning actions that spiral slowly into the seething fury and contempt that my parents, other parents, feel for each other. The way I see it, things and people leave you, anyway. It’s how they leave you that’s important.
“We could do a séance if you want,” I say, stalling, attempting to pause the air around me. I catch a whiff of my cast—like wet dog or spoiled sweat, try to move it aside. It is like being attached to a rotting corpse, a sinking ship. I’m surprised he hasn’t noticed.
“Poor leg. Give leg a séance,” he says, putting a pillow on top of it. Then he slowly, methodically plucks me open, all of my coverings, first the shirt, then my bra from the backside. And I am vastly aware of Melissa’s presence in the room—her bold, excitability, her impulse to proceed, against all logic or rules or concerns.
He kisses me with closed eyes, like he is searching for a person who no longer exists. “Kiss me back,” he says. I do.
“Pretend I’m her,” I finally say, and he crushes me against his chest, but his hand is still light and gentle on my hair, my head.
“I don’t want that,” he says. “I don’t . . .”
His breathing is shallow, and in Big Crunch world, sex is where things would begin—with a used condom, an exhausted mattress and two sixteen-year-olds pretending love in order to bridge a gap. His skin would still smell like smoke and day-old sweat, gasoline. Then he would orgasm, and suddenly everything would be a flurry, a rush of color and momentum and newness. Afterwards, I’d climb out from under the green flannel sheet and put on my clothes, and he’d hold my hair lightly until finally leaning in to kiss my forehead, my cheek, my open mouth. He’d exhale smoke into the ashy roach, growing it into a long, thin joint.
In Big Bang time, he whispers, “You want me, not Brad Thomas.” He kisses me too hard, shoves his dry tongue down my throat, then again so that I can’t breathe. “You promised me,” he says, and he’s rubbing his crotch against me, his fingers dug into my belly, and my cast-leg still beneath the pillow, and it hurts, and I wonder how he’s going to get my pants off overtop the cast, anyway. I should have showered first, wonder if he’ll suddenly stop and say, “Just playing, Lexie. I just wanted to see what you’d let me get away with.”
He pulls a condom from the nightstand—some off-brand flavored thing. I’m nervous. I try to make light: “Would you coin toss for syphilis? Or pregnancy?” I say in Mr. Bard’s raspy voice. “Condoms are only 50 percent reliable.” I’m not aroused. It will be years before I understand what arousal feels like. But I have butterflies—every muscle in my body trembles.
“Shut up, doofus,” he says. “Condoms work.” He kisses me hard again, tongue sealing off my airway, releasing. He’s taking off his own pants, sliding them down his legs revealing childish tighty whities, and I can’t breathe. “Stop,” I say. “Stop!” And he withdraws, holds himself above me like a seal, like a washed-up canoe. “What?” he says. “What do you want?” Then I don’t know what to do.