فصل 07

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فصل 07

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FINCH

Day 8 of the Awake

On Sunday evening, Kate and Decca and I drive to my dad’s new house in the more expensive part of town for Weekly Obligatory Family Dinner. I’m wearing the same plain navy shirt and khakis I always wear when I see my father.

We are silent on the way over, each of us staring out the window. We don’t even play the radio. “Have fun over there,” Mom said before we left, trying to be cheerful, when I know that the second the car hit the street, she was on the phone to a girlfriend and opening a bottle of wine. It’ll be my first time seeing my dad since before Thanksgiving and my first time in his new home, the one he shares with Rosemarie and her son.

They live in one of these colossal brand-new houses that look like every other house up and down the street. As we pull up out front, Kate says, “Can you imagine trying to find this place drunk?”

The three of us march up the clean white sidewalk. Two matching SUVs are parked in the drive, shining as if their pretentious mechanical lives depend on it.

Rosemarie answers the door. She is maybe thirty, with redblond hair and a worried smile. Rosemarie is what’s known as a caretaker, according to my mother, which—also according to my mother—is exactly what my father needs. She came with a $200,000 settlement from her ex-husband and a gap-toothed seven-year-old named Josh Raymond, who may or may not be my real brother.

My dad comes booming toward us from the backyard, where he’s grilling thirty-five pounds of meat even though it’s January, not July. His T-shirt says SUCK IT, SENATORS. Twelve years ago, he was a professional hockey player better known as the Slammer, until he shattered his femur against another player’s head. He looks the same as he did the last time I saw him—too handsome and too fit for a guy his age, like he expects to be called back to duty at any moment—but his dark hair is flecked with gray, which is new.

He hugs my sisters and slaps me on the back. Unlike most hockey players, he somehow managed to keep his teeth, and he flashes them at us now like we’re groupies. He wants to know how our week was, how was school, did we learn anything he might not know. This is a challenge—his equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet. It’s a way for us to try to stump wise old Pops, which is no fun for anyone, and so we all say no.

Dad asks about the November/December study-away program, and it takes me a minute to realize he’s talking to me. “Uh, it was okay.” Good one, Kate. I make a note to thank her. He doesn’t know about the shutting down or the trouble at school beyond sophomore year because last year, after the guitar-smashing episode, I told Principal Wertz my dad was killed in a hunting accident. He never bothered to check up on it, and now he calls my mother whenever there’s a problem, which means he actually calls Kate because Mom never bothers to check voicemail.

I pick a leaf off the grill. “They invited me to stay on, but I turned them down. I mean, as much as I enjoy figure skating, and as good as I am at it—I guess I get that from you—I’m not sure I want to make a career of it.” One of the great pleasures of my life is making comments like this, because having a gay son is my bigoted prick of a father’s worst nightmare.

His only response is to pop open another beer and attack the thirty-five pounds of meat with his tongs like it’s in danger of rising up and devouring us all. I wish it would.

When it’s actually time to eat, we sit in the white-and-gold dining room with the natural-wool carpet, the most expensive money can buy. This is apparently a huge improvement over the shitty nylon carpet that was in the house when they moved in.

Josh Raymond barely clears the table, because his mother is small and her ex-husband is small, unlike my dad, who is a giant. My stepbrother is a different sort of small than I was at his age—the neat and tidy sort, no elbows or ears jutting out, everything in proportion. This is one thing that leads me to believe he may not be genetically linked to my father after all.

Right now, Josh Raymond kicks at the table leg and stares at us over his plate with the enormous, unblinking eyes of an owl. I say, “How’s it hanging, little man?”

He squeaks a reply, and my father the Slammer strokes his perfectly stubbled jaw and says in the soft, patient voice of a nun, “Josh Raymond, we’ve discussed kicking the table.” It is a tone he has never once used with me or my sisters.

Decca, who has already filled her plate, begins eating as Rosemarie serves everyone else one by one. When she gets to me, I say, “I’m good without, unless you’ve got a veggie burger on there.” She only blinks at me, her hand still hovering in midair. Without turning her face, she swivels her eyes in my father’s direction.

“Veggie burger?” His voice isn’t soft or patient. “I was raised on meat and potatoes, and I’ve made it to thirty-five.” (He was forty-three in October.) “I figured my parents were the ones putting the food on the table, so it wasn’t my job to question it.” He pulls up his shirt and pats his stomach—still flat, but no longer a six-pack—shakes his head, and smiles at me, the smile of a man who has a new wife and a new son and a new house and two new cars and who only has to put up with his old, original kids for another hour or two.

“I don’t eat red meat, Dad.” Actually, to be technical, it’s ’80s Finch who’s the vegetarian.

“Since when?”

“Since last week.”

“Oh, for Christ’s …” Dad sits back and stares at me as Decca takes a big, bloody bite of her burger, the juice dripping down her chin.

Kate says, “Don’t be an asshole, Dad. He doesn’t have to eat it if he doesn’t want to.”

Before I can stop him, ’80s Finch says, “There are different ways to die. There’s jumping off a roof and there’s slowly poisoning yourself with the flesh of another every single day.”

“I am so sorry, Theo. I didn’t know.” Rosemarie darts a look at my father, who’s still staring at me. “How about I make you a potato salad sandwich?” She sounds so hopeful that I let her, even though the potato salad has bacon in it.

“He can’t eat that. The potato salad has bacon.” This is from Kate.

My dad says, “Well, he can goddamn pick it out.” The “out” sounds like “oot,” a relic of Dad’s Canadian upbringing. He’s starting to get annoyed, and so we shut up because the faster we eat, the faster we leave.

At home, I give Mom a kiss on the cheek because she needs it, and I inhale the scent of red wine. “Did you kids have fun?” she asks, and we know she’s hoping we’ll beg for permission to never go there again.

Decca says, “We most certainly did not,” and goes stomping up the stairs.

My mother sighs in relief before taking another drink and going after her. She does her best parenting on Sundays.

Kate opens a bag of chips and says, “This is so stupid.” And I know what she means. “This” equals our parents and Sundays and maybe our whole screwed-up lives. “I don’t even see why we have to go over there and pretend to like each other when everyone knows that’s exactly what we’re doing. Pretending.” She hands me the bag.

“Because people like you to pretend, Kate. They prefer it.”

She flicks her hair over her shoulder and scrunches up her face in a way that means she’s thinking. “You know, I’ve decided to go to college in the fall after all.” Kate offered to stay home when the divorce happened. Someone needs to look after Mom, she said.

Suddenly I’m hungry, and the two of us pass the bag back and forth, back and forth. I say, “I thought you liked having time off from school.” I love her enough to pretend along with her that this is the other reason she stayed home, that it had nothing to do with her cheating high school boyfriend, the same one she’d planned her future around.

She shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s not quite as ‘time off’ as I expected. I’m thinking about going to Denver, maybe seeing what’s to see out there.”

“Like Logan?” Better known as the cheating high school boyfriend.

“This has nothing to do with him.”

“I hope not.”

I want to repeat the things I’ve been telling her for months: You’re better than him. You’ve already wasted too much time on that asshole. But her jaw has gone rigid and she is frowning into the chips bag. “It beats living at home.”

I can’t argue with her there, so instead I ask, “Do you remember Eleanor Markey?”

“Sure. She was in my class. Why?”

“She’s got a sister.” I met her on the bell tower when we were both thinking about jumping. We could have held hands and leaped off together. They would have thought we were star-crossed lovers. They’d write songs about us. We’d be legends.

Kate shrugs. “Eleanor was okay. A little full of herself. She could be fun. I didn’t know her all that well. I don’t remember her sister.” She finishes the wine from Mom’s glass and grabs the car keys. “Later.”

Upstairs, I bypass Split Enz, Depeche Mode, and the Talking Heads for Johnny Cash. I throw At Folsom Prison onto the turntable, fish through my desk for a cigarette, and tell ’80s Finch to get over it. After all, I created him, and I can take him away. As I light the cigarette, though, I can suddenly picture my lungs turning as black as a newly paved road, and I think of what I said to my dad earlier: There are different ways to die. There’s jumping off a roof and there’s slowly poisoning yourself with the flesh of another every single day.

No animals died to make this cigarette, but for once I don’t like the way it makes me feel, like I’m being polluted, like I’m being poisoned. I stub it out and, before I can change my mind, break all the others in half. Then I cut the halves with scissors and sweep them into the trash, sign onto the computer, and start typing.

January 11. According to the New York Times, nearly 20 percent of suicides are committed by poison, but among doctors who kill themselves, that number is 57 percent. My thoughts on the method: Seems like kind of a coward’s way out, if you ask me. I think I’d rather feel something. That said, if someone held a gun to my head (haha—sorry, suicide humor) and made me use poison, I’d choose cyanide. In gaseous form, death can be instant, which I realize defeats the purpose of feeling something. But come to think of it, after a lifetime of feeling too much, maybe there’s actually something to be said for fast and sudden.

When I finish, I walk into the bathroom to dig through the medicine cabinet. Advil, aspirin, some kind of over-the-counter sleeping pills I stole from Kate and then stored in an old prescription bottle of Mom’s. I meant what I said to Embryo about drugs. We don’t mix. What it comes down to for me is I have a hard enough time keeping control over my brain without something else getting in the way.

But you never know when you might need a good sleeping pill. I open the bottle now, dump the blue tablets into my palm, and count them. Thirty. Back at my desk, I line the pills up one by one by one, like a little blue army.

I sign onto Facebook, and over on Violet’s page someone from school has posted about her being a hero for saving me. There are 146 comments and 289 likes, and while I’d like to think there are this many people grateful that I’m still alive, I know better. I go to my own page, which is empty except for Violet’s friend picture.

I set my fingers on the keyboard, looking at the way they rest there, the nails broad and round. I run my hands along the keys, as if I’m playing piano. And then I type, Obligatory family meals suck, especially when meat and denial are involved. “I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.” Especially when there is so much else to do. The quote is from Virginia Woolf’s suicide note to her husband, but I think it fits the occasion.

I send the message and wait around the computer, organizing the pills into groups of three, then ten, when really I’m hoping for something from Violet. I work at banging the license plate flat again, scribble down Another of those terrible times, and add it to the wall of my room, which is already covered in notes just like this. The wall has various names: Wall of Thoughts, Wall of Ideas, Wall of My Mind, or just The Wall, not to be confused with Pink Floyd. The wall is a place to keep track of thoughts, as fast as they come, and remember them when they go away. Anything interesting or weird or even halfway inspired goes up there.

An hour later, I check my Facebook page. Violet has written: “Arrange whatever pieces come your way.”

My skin starts to burn. She’s quoting Virginia Woolf back to me. My pulse has tripled its pace. Shit, I think. That’s all the Virginia Woolf I know. I do a quick internet search, looking for just the right response. Suddenly I wish I’d paid more attention to Virginia Woolf, a writer I’ve never had much use for until now. Suddenly I wish I’d done nothing but study her for all of my seventeen years.

I type back: “My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? What’s this passion for?”

This goes to what Violet said about time filler and how none of it matters, but it’s also me exactly—buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then falling deep into mud, so deep I can’t breathe. The Asleeps and Awakes, no in-betweens.

It’s a damn good quote, so good it gives me chills. I study the hairs standing up on my arm, and by the time I look back at the screen, Violet has responded. “When you consider things like the stars, our affairs don’t seem to matter very much, do they?”

I’m full-on cheating now, pulling up every Virginia Woolf site I can find. I wonder if she’s cheating too. I write: “I am rooted, but I flow.”

I nearly change my mind. I think about deleting the line, but then she writes back. I like that one. Where is it from?

The Waves. I cheat again and find the passage. Here’s more: “I feel a thousand capacities spring up in me. I am arch, gay, languid, melancholy by turns. I am rooted, but I flow. All gold, flowing …”

I decide to end there, mostly because I’m in a hurry to see if she’ll write back.

It takes her three minutes. I like: “This is the most exciting moment I have ever known. I flutter. I ripple. I stream like a plant in the river, flowing this way, flowing that way, but rooted, so that he may come to me. ‘Come,’ I say, ‘come.’ ”

My pulse isn’t the only part of my body stirring now. I adjust myself and think how weirdly, stupidly sexy this is.

I write, You make me feel gold, flowing. I post it without thinking. I can go on quoting Virginia Woolf—believe me, the passage gets even hotter—but I decide I want to quote myself instead.

I wait for her response. I wait for three minutes. Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. I open up her website, the one she ran with her sister, and check the date of the last post, which hasn’t changed since the last time I looked.

I get it, I think. Not gold, not flowing. Standing still.

Then another message appears: I got your rules for wandering and I have an addition: We don’t travel in bad weather. We walk, jog, or ride bikes. No driving. We don’t go far from Bartlett.

She is all business now. I reply: If we’re walking, jogging, or riding bikes, that’s not going to be a problem. Thinking of her website sitting dead and empty, I add: We should write about our wanderings so we have something to show for them besides pictures. Actually, you should do the writing. I’ll just smile and look pretty.

I am still sitting there an hour later, but she’s gone. Like that, I’ve either irritated her or scared her away. So I make up song after song. Most nights, these are Songs That Will Change the World because they are that good and that deep and that damn amazing. But tonight I’m telling myself I don’t have anything in common with this Violet girl, no matter how much I want to, and asking myself if the words between us were really that hot or if maybe it was just me imagining, me in overdrive for a girl I barely know, all because she’s the first person I’ve met who seems to speak my language. A few words of it anyway.

I scoop up the sleeping pills and hold them in my palm. I can swallow them right now, lie down on my bed, close my eyes, drift away. But who’s going to check on Violet Markey to make sure she’s not back up on that ledge? I drop the pills into the toilet and flush them down. And then I go back to EleanorandViolet.com, search the archives till I get to the first post, and move forward through all of them until I’ve read every single one.

I stay up as long as I can, finally falling asleep sometime around four a.m. I dream that I’m naked and standing in the bell tower at school, in the cold and the rain. I look below me and everyone is there, teachers and students, and my dad eating a hamburger raw, holding it up to the sky like he’s toasting me. I hear a noise over my shoulder and turn to see Violet, on the opposite end of the ledge and naked too except for a pair of black boots. It’s stupefying—the very best thing I’ve ever seen with these two eyes—but before I can unhook myself from the stone railing and go to her, she opens her mouth, leaps into the air, and starts to scream.

It’s the alarm, of course, and I slam it once with my fist before throwing it against the wall, where it lies, bleating like a lost sheep.

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