Underwater, page 1
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For Jon and Kai
I just moved. Not from one town to another, but from one end of the couch to the other end. I don’t usually sit on this side, but I’m trying to listen in on the apartment next door. I’m rather particular about where I sit because I like things to be to the left of me. I need to be able to see what’s there.
The walls of our two-bedroom apartment are thin and covered in the standard off-white paint of a rental unit, but I still can’t make out the words on the other side. I can only decipher the pitch of the voices.
One is high.
One is low.
And then I hear feet hitting the linoleum floor and the noise of the screen door as it slaps open followed by the double bang of it shutting back into place.
Someone knocks on my door. Their knuckles thrum against the flimsy wood, and the echo of it rings hollow through my apartment.
Yes, I can open the door. But I can’t cross the threshold. That’s my rule: Nothing will ever hurt me if I don’t cross the threshold.
I press my shoulder against the door and grab hold of the knob. “Who is it?”
“I don’t know you.”
“No kidding.” He laughs. “I just moved in next door.”
I peek through the peephole. It offers up a long, distorted version of whoever is out there. It’s not the best view, but I can tell his hands are empty. That’s good.
Even though Evan will eventually segue from new person to neighbor, I’m not eager to get the introduction ball rolling. This kind of attitude is exactly what guarantees that, by the end of the month, Evan will think of me as the weird chick with the frizzy hair who never goes outside. I’m pretty sure that’s what everyone else in my apartment building thinks of me. They leave every day, and I stay here. They come home, and I’m still here doing the same thing. But right now, Evan doesn’t know all of that, so I should probably open the door even though the thought of it makes my hands sweat. I pull it open a crack. A tiny crack.
Evan is cute.
And he looks my age.
The peephole didn’t do him justice.
He runs his hand through his hair. It’s fluffy and brown with golden sun-bleached tips. His skin is tan, sun-drenched like his hair, and his nose is peeling. He must’ve moved from the beach. Literally. Like, he had a hut on the sand. Something about the way he smells makes me want to stay near him. He reminds me of things I miss. I breathe him in, relishing the aroma of earth and ocean and bonfire smoke.
“Um, hey,” he says. “Are you sick or something?”
I consider shutting the door in his face. How can he call me out so fast?
“Why?” I can hear the edge in my voice, the back-offness to my tone. It’s enough to make him straighten up and push back on his flip-flopped feet.
“Sorry. It’s just—it’s Wednesday. Shouldn’t you be at school? Are you home sick?”
Of course he meant was I physically sick, like with pneumonia or explosive diarrhea. Not mentally sick.
“Why aren’t you at school?” I say.
“Because I’m moving in today and starting school tomorrow.” He says this like I should get it. “I can’t do both at the same time.”
I realize I’m not being the most welcoming neighbor. “Sorry,” I mumble. “I don’t do well with strangers.”
“Does the fact that I now live next door make me less of a stranger?”
“Okaaay.” He runs his hand through his hair again like he’s frustrated. But also like he’s trying to understand. It’s the same way my mom looked at me on Thanksgiving four months ago when I told her I couldn’t take the trash out to the Dumpster anymore.
“What was it you wanted?” I ask.
He shakes his head, and one of those golden-tipped curls comes loose and falls down over his eye. He shoves it back behind his ear. “Is that your car out back with the tarp on it? It says 207 on the space number. That’s you, right?”
“Cool, because my mom needs me to unload the U-Haul. I don’t want to scratch your car. Can you move it?”
My heart rate speeds up instantly. It pounds through my chest like rain on the roof. Evan can probably hear the fast and furious thump of it. I wipe my palms against my flannel pajama pants and grasp for excuses. I actually feel like I’m stretching up, reaching for apples on a really high branch.
“I can’t. I’m sick. I can’t leave. I can’t move my car.”
I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. It’s my mantra now.
Evan looks at me. Brow creased. Perplexed. “Wait, I thought you just got mad at me for assuming you were sick. Now you really are sick?”
“Yep.” I cough. “Super sick. And it’s really contagious. You probably shouldn’t get too close.”
He scoots back a couple inches. In the courtyard below, the sunlight smashes against the surface of the swimming pool and shoots a reflection at Evan’s feet so it looks like he’s standing in a puddle. “You don’t wanna move your car?”
“But like I said, it’s in the way.”
“How about if you move it?” Yes, brilliant. Good job, Morgan. Being quick on my feet is a skill I’m getting progressively better at as the months pass.
“You want me to move your car? You just called me a stranger five seconds ago. What if I steal it and sell it on Craigslist?”
“You won’t. Let me get the keys.”
I shut the door and grab the keys from the rack my mom hung in the kitchen after one too many mornings of frantically searching the apartment for lost keys. When I crack the door back open, my breath catches again, because he really is cuter than he should be.
Stop it, Morgan.
I hold the keys up to Evan, but when he reaches in to grab them, my body goes on high alert.
I drop the keys at my feet.
He bends over, calm and steady, eyes on mine the whole time, as he reaches past the threshold to grab them.
His fingertips graze my bare toes.
I jump back.
I breathe fast.
He stands up.
He straightens out.
“Hey, is the pool heated?” he asks. “Or am I gonna freeze my face off if I jump in?”
The pool. I try to ignore it. It taunts me. But I can practically feel the cool water sliding through my fingers and down my back as soon as Evan mentions swimming. I imagine him yanking off his shirt and jumping in. Then I try to unimagine it.
“It’s warm enough, but it’s too short to get a good workout. And too shallow to pull off a flip turn. Plus you have to scoop the leaves out yourself.”
“You sound like you know something about swimming. Are you on a team?”
“Oh. Why not?”
“Because. Just bring the keys back whenever, okay? Or, if you sell it, bring me the cash.”
“I’ll get you a good deal.” He laughs. “I don’t back down too easy.”
I shut the door and hope my car will start. My mom takes it out once in a while to keep it running, but it’s old. She’s actually threatened to sell it. She says we could use the money. I’m pretty sure she’s bluffing. For her, selling my car would be the same as giving up. She’d rather hang on to hope.
* * *
My mom hopes I’ll go back to school when it’s time to be a senior.
I do online high school now. Going to my other school got to be too hard. I can’t control things out in the real world. Cars turn corners too fast. Doors slam. People appear out of nowhere. It’s unpredictable.
I don’t like unpredictable.
Home is predictable enough. Until just now when I realized we have new neighbors. And there’s a teenager like me next door. Well, not really like me, because I’m pretty sure Evan actually leaves the house. He looks like he surfs and watches bands play at crammed clubs with entrances in backstreet alleys that require secret passwords. He looks like he rides his skateboard in the empty parking lots of places in town that have gone out of business or zooms down steep hills for an adrenaline rush. So not really like me at all.
Because he has a life.
I go to school online and eat tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch every day.
I form an assembly line along the coffee-stained Formica of the kitchen counter just the way my dad taught me. Bread. Butter. Cheese. Piping hot griddle.
I like the sound of the sizzle of the butter as it hits the pan. It’s a reminder of how quickly things change. One second you’re whole, the next second you’ve melted.
I like to put extra cheese on my sandwich so it drips out over the sides. That way, I can scoop it up, twirl it around my fingertip, and suck it into my mouth. I also dunk the toasty bread into the soup, sopping up what’s left in the bottom of the bowl. I eat on the couch where the TV is in front of me and the closed curtains are behind me. I’m a shut-in. I’m unaware if it’s foggy, sunny, cold, or hot outside unless I’m specifically paying attention. Nothing changes inside my living room. I have a television lineup, online school, the same lunch, and scheduled ten a.m. and two p.m. check-in phone calls from my mom every weekday.
My psychologist visits twice a week.
Her name is Brenda.
She has a hard edge and soft eyes.
She has tattoos that snake up and down her arms until they get lost underneath the sleeves or the collar of whatever shirt she’s wearing.
She comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays after lunch.
At one p.m.
She’ll be here tomorrow.
We’ll sit on the couch and she’ll make me turn off the TV.
I hate that.
Sometimes Brenda forces me to say things that make me cry. But usually, talking to her calms me down. She also checks up on my medicine to be sure I have enough emergency pills. I need them sometimes. On bad days. Brenda can’t prescribe them for me because she’s not that kind of doctor. She’s a psychologist. My regular doctor gave me the prescription after he talked to Brenda.
Today feels different because Evan is next door.
I can hear the bang bang of him hammering nails into the wall. I can hear the thump thump of him bounding up the stairs. I can hear the slap slap of his screen door as he goes in and out, back and forth, up and down the stairs.
Evan is next door. He smells like the ocean.
This runs through my head for the rest of the day. It’s what I hear as I sop up soup and sift through soap operas.
I assume he’ll bring my keys back when he’s done hauling things inside. But when hours pass and he doesn’t return, I wonder if maybe he did sell my car. Or at least moved it someplace far away. That would almost be a relief.
But, eventually, there is a knock at my door.
“Who is it?” I ask, as if anyone else ever comes by unannounced.
“Me again. I have your keys.”
I flick on the porch light because the evening shadows have set in and I want to be able to see him better. He’s a bit sweatier for wear, but his hair is still fluffy and curly and falling into his face in a way that makes me avoid eye contact. He dangles my Pacific Palms High School key chain out in front of him.
“Sorry it took so long, but I put her back where she belongs,” he says. “That Bel Air is a classic. How’d you end up with such a sweet ride?”
“It was my grandpa’s.”
I know nothing about cars. I only know things about this particular matador-red Bel Air because my grandpa told them to me one million times so I could commit the words to memory.
“What year is it?”
“Your grandpa must’ve been one cool dude.”
“He was.” I smile and shut the door.
Evan knocks again. He knocks loud and long. I open the door because I can’t not notice him. There’s something pulling me closer to the threshold, and I can feel it. There’s a tingle in my big toe. I look down and see I’ve practically got one foot out the door. I yank it back inside, stunned that I even tried.
We stand. We stare.
“Why’d you shut the door like that?” he asks.
Thankfully, my little brother comes soaring through the courtyard right then. His arms are spread out wide like an airplane. His mouth makes the sputtering noises of the engine, and his lips spritz spit into the sky. My mom comes in behind him in dirty hospital scrubs. Her hair is knotted, sloppy, on the top of her head, and my brother’s superhero backpack strains against one of her shoulders. She’s not a nurse. She does the gross stuff. From Monday through Friday, she mops up blood and puke from hospital corridors. And some nights, like tonight, she comes home balancing a pizza box from Penzoni’s on her hip as she struggles to open our mailbox to fish out the pile of bills inside.
My brother takes the stairs to our front door two at a time. He stops short at Evan’s feet. His arms fall flat at his sides and some spittle stalls, then sucks back between his lips—zzzzzip—as he eyes Evan with kindergarten suspicion.
“Who are you?”
Evan laughs. “Uh, Evan Kokua.”
Evan tosses out some sort of secret handshake, bumping his fist against Ben’s in a way that sends my little brother into spasms of laughter.
“Are you a superhero?” Ben asks.
Evan shoots my brother a grin that lights up the otherwise dingy wraparound balcony outside our front door, then leans down to look him in the eye. “If I am, I’ll never tell.”
Ben pushes past me and through the front door. I rock backward then forward, but manage to stay inside.
And then my mom shuffles up the stairs, hands the pizza box over to me, and looks at Evan. “Half cheese, half pepperoni. I know it’s not very original, but you’re welcome to join us, Superman.”
She brushes past him to get inside.
Evan shifts forward, ready to make the crossing into our tiny apartment, but he stops midstride over the threshold when he looks at me. My eyes must be bugging out of my face, because he falls back into place on the other side of the door, feet firmly planted on our welcome mat.
“Nah, I better not. I’ve gotta nail a bookshelf to the wall. Earthquakes.”
He shrugs. We all shrug.
California earthquakes. We’re all waiting for them. We’re all waiting for things to happen that might never come—things that, if they do come, might not be as bad as the things that have already occurred.
“I’m Carol,” my mom says, shoving her hand past me to grip Evan’s. They shake. He smiles.
“It’s nice to meet you, Carol. I’m Evan. My mom and I just moved here from Hawaii. You’ll meet her, I’
My mom throws her arms out on each side of her, accidentally thwacking the hanging planter with the dying fern in it hard enough to send it swaying under the porch light. “Welcome to Paradise Manor, Evan. Ain’t it grand?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I bet you didn’t realize paradise has a view of the Dumpster and no AC.”
Evan lets out a genuine laugh that shakes something loose deep inside of me. I like genuine laughter in the same way I like the warm sun on my face, but I haven’t heard or felt either of those things in a long time.
“Well, good night, then,” my mom says as she slips all the way inside. “You’ll have to swing by for pizza some other time. Right, Morgan?” It’s not a question. It’s an expectation. It’s a request to hurry up and have a life again.
“Um, right,” I say, rolling the knotted string of my daytime pajama pants between my fingertips. I stand at the door staring at Evan. “Sorry. My mom’s kind of embarrassing.”
“Not really. She just tells it like it is. It’s not like we don’t know where we are. It’s not like we don’t know we’re living the lyrics to a bad country song.” He fakes strumming a guitar.
Something about Evan makes me want to be brave, so I fasten a fake guitar strap across my own shoulder and strum the strings at my waist.
“She lives in a rundowwwwwn building on the outskirts of towwwwwwn,” I croon in an over-the-top country twang.
“Not bad,” he says as he backs away from the door, nodding. “Not bad at all. I’m gonna have to write some music to go along with that. Right after I learn to play the guitar.”
The idea of us making music together is so ludicrous that it makes me laugh.
Evan grins at me. “You have a good laugh. Like when you hand one out, you mean it. My cousin was like that.”
The compliment throws me off-kilter, and I play it back in my head to be sure I heard him right. “Well, your cousin must’ve been one cool dude.”
He smiles halfheartedly. “Yeah. I think you would’ve liked him.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Well, I hope you feel better. My mom swears by soup. Do you have any?”
That makes me laugh again.