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Underwater a novel, p.4

Underwater: A Novel, page 4


Underwater: A Novel

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  I turn to him, flabbergasted. He looks back at me like, What?

  “That’s you,” I say like he might not know.

  He glances my way with one eye shut, embarrassed. “I swear I didn’t play you this to show off. I haven’t even seen it yet.”

  “What is it? Are you famous? Should I be asking you for an autograph?”

  He laughs. “No. It’s just a surf video. My friends and I made it. Back home.”

  “And home is Hawaii.”

  “Home was Hawaii.”

  “Lucky you.” I sigh. “Why would you ever leave?”

  Evan shrugs. “Family stuff. A fresh start. My mom wanted to go. There’s a list.”

  I nod and try to think of something I could say to make a move from Hawaii to Pacific Palms, California, seem worth it, but I’ve got nothing.

  “I bet you can’t wait to get back,” I say, hoping he’ll tell me the opposite. Because the truth is I don’t want him to leave. Not even from right here, right now, on this cruddy couch.

  He smiles at me, and something about it feels so honest and whole, like he sees what I’m wishing. “Hm. Maybe not always.”

  His reply makes me fumble for another question. “So are you at Ocean High?”

  “Yep. You too, right?”

  “Sort of.”

  “You went to PPHS before, right?” he asks me gently, like he’s coaxing a feral cat out from behind a Dumpster in a dark alley.

  It’s not a surprise that he knows about what happened at PPHS. The whole country knows. It was all over TV and the Internet. People grow solemn when what happened at my school comes up in discussion. But Evan’s tone almost sounds like Brenda. It makes me worry he knows something more specific about me.

  “Yes. But I don’t like to talk about it,” I say.

  “Sorry.” He tugs at his shirtsleeve, focusing his gaze on the worn edges of it. “I was just thinking maybe you knew my cousin since you were at the same school.”

  “Probably not.” My heart speeds up. My stomach hurts. This subject needs to change. “So this is what you did in Hawaii? Went to the beach? And made surf videos with your friends?”

  He looks at me thoughtfully, and I figure he wishes we could keep talking about the other stuff. But then he grins. “Pretty much. I also did ding repairs on surfboards, bussed tables, and threw lemons at rental cars.”

  “Whoa. That’s mean.”

  “You wouldn’t say that if you knew how many kooks visit Hawaii every year. Millions. What can I say? My friends and I get territorial about our surf spots.”

  I turn back to the TV, willing myself to get caught up again. There’s something so free, so alive, about what Evan and his friends are doing. Another boy slides down the screen on his surfboard, running his fingers through the wall of the wave he’s riding. Water skids off his slick skin and into his wake. I can imagine Evan and his posse on the beach, watching their friend from shore, stoked on the moment. And I want to be there. Some tiny part of me wishes I could be part of that day. Out there. Outside. In the sun and the sand and the water, skimming across the screen to nowhere in particular. And thinking about it makes me remember, for a split second, that feeling of just being. And I wonder if I’ll ever find it again. Really and truly find it. I twist my gaze from the screen to Evan. He isn’t watching his friends surf. He’s watching me.

  “You love the water as much as I do,” he says, nodding at me. “I can tell.”

  “Mm-hm.” My voice drifts. Sentimental. Nostalgic. I haven’t swum since the day before October fifteenth.

  “Keep the DVD,” he says, smiling. “You should have it.”


  “Yeah. That way, you can watch it whenever you want. And we should definitely go surfing sometime.”

  When I don’t answer, he focuses back on the TV. I watch him watching. He has a faraway look on his face, like he remembers everything about the day that video was made. If I opened my mouth to say it, he’d get it. He’d nod his head and agree. But I don’t speak true things like that out loud anymore. The only person I tell things to is Brenda.

  And that’s one more thing that makes me know that even though Evan and I live next door to each other, we are miles apart.

  He will leave his house every day.

  He will traipse through the courtyard of our building.

  I will watch him go.

  He will be a boy living out in the world.

  I will be a girl peeking out from behind a curtain.

  chapter six

  The weekend passes, and when Brenda comes on Tuesday, she says we need a plan for how I can help myself when something triggers a panic attack.

  “I’m sorry I called you,” I say.

  “It’s okay.” Even though she tells me this, I worry she’s at least a little disappointed in me. We’ve been working for months, and everything she’s been teaching me flew right out the window as soon as I saw my school on television. “I wanted to help. But I also want to give you the tools you need to get through those attacks that happen when I’m not available to talk you through them. I want to empower you.”

  She makes me take out a piece of paper to write down all the things I need to tell myself if it happens again.

  1. Breathe.

  2. You are okay.

  3. You are not dying.

  We’ve written a list like this before, but it stayed in my notebook. This time Brenda wants me to tear the page free and tape it to the wall. I decide to put it up by the kitchen counter. Anybody can see it. My mom. Ben. Even Evan if I let him inside again. It will be a reminder that the girl who lives here isn’t quite right.

  I smooth my list out by the photo calendar I made online for my mom for Christmas. April has a picture of Ben blowing bubbles in the courtyard of Paradise Manor. I stare at the bubbles. I stare at my list. Is it really as simple as one, two, three?

  “Well, that’s done. Let’s sit,” Brenda says.

  We do.

  “So. I have to admit, your excitement about meeting Evan the last time we talked made me hopeful you might be ready to try something new. Something simple.” She pulls out her notebook and looks at me to make sure I’m following. “But now I’m wondering if it’s the right time for that. What do you think?”

  “What did you have in mind?”

  “Well, there’s a mailbox. It’s just down the block. I was thinking we could try to walk there sometime. We could send something.”

  “What? Like a letter?”

  “Anything. Even something for your mom. But a letter is a great idea. I can help you with it.”

  I think of the outdoors and how good fresh air and warm sun used to feel, but there’s no way I can make it to the mailbox. “I don’t think so.”

  “Okay. I hear you.” She looks at me with her soft eyes. “But please think about it. I’d be right there with you. We could do it together. Baby steps.”

  “I don’t even know who I would write to.”

  “You can write to anybody.”

  “Why would someone care if they got a letter from me?”

  “I’m sure lots of people would be thrilled. Sage. Your grandmother. Your dad.”

  “I don’t even know where my dad is.”

  “You could still write him a letter as an exercise.”

  I think of all the letters I wrote to my dad through his multiple tours in Afghanistan. In middle school, I’d tell him about my collection of first-place ribbons hanging on the knob of my top dresser drawer. I’d tell him about my mom and Ben and chocolate chip cookies. When I was fifteen and high school was new, I’d send him detailed accounts of all the things I was doing and seeing and being. I’d tell him about my swim meets and how I’d clocked the fastest time on my 4x100 freestyle relay team. I’d tell him about my straight A’s. I’d tell him about an AP exam. My letters took weeks to get to him. When I was younger, he’d write me back long, detailed accounts of the hot desert and the sandstorms that whipped up around him in the middle of
the day. He would tell me he missed me and to give my mom and Ben the biggest hugs I could. But as I got older, I’d be lucky to get back a quick postcard. And eventually, I didn’t hear back from him at all. He pulled further and further away.

  I definitely took it personally.

  He didn’t even try to get in touch with me after everything that happened at my school on October fifteenth. And he wasn’t even deployed at the time. He was just too far gone. He was drunk and had disappeared.

  “War is a mindfuck,” he said when he got back from Afghanistan at the end of September a year and a half ago and drank more than he ever had before. As a kid, I remember my dad being a person who’d drink a beer or two at a party or a sporting event or a weekend barbecue. But by last year, he had become a person who constantly reeked of hard liquor. He was spiraling and numbing the pain of whatever flashbacks were giving him nightmares and making him cry out in his sleep. He was short-tempered and made scenes in the courtyard of Paradise Manor. He yelled at me because I hadn’t done the dishes or mopped up the water puddle Ben made when I pulled him out of the bath. It was exhausting and embarrassing. By Halloween, after he tossed all our jack-o’-lanterns over the railing in front of our apartment in a drunken rage while everyone in the building watched them smash to pieces below, my mom told my dad they needed to take some time apart. My dad moved in with my uncle Matt six hours down the coast. I’d always liked my uncle, but a part of me was jealous that my ten- and seven-year-old cousins were getting to spend more time with my dad than Ben and I. I assumed he was getting help—he wasn’t—and they were getting a better version of him.

  Ben asked about our dad a lot, which is probably why my mom invited my dad for Christmas that year.

  A last-ditch effort.

  He didn’t come, of course.

  My mom filed for divorce the very next day.

  If I wrote my dad a letter, I would definitely have a lot to say. But I’m not sure I want to put that down on paper at the moment.

  “Will you at least think about going outside?” Brenda asks when I walk her to the door.

  I nod. I think she thinks I’m really going to think about it. Maybe she sees something in me that I don’t.

  * * *

  After Brenda’s gone, I sit at the computer and scroll through Facebook for the first time in a long time. I see the things my old swim teammates are doing without me. They are at new schools on other swim teams. I didn’t even bother to look into joining the team when I transferred to Ocean High after October fifteenth. It’s like I had some innate understanding that I wouldn’t last there until swim season. And now the people I used to swim with have made other friends. Better friends. They have smiles on their faces that make them look like they’re not afraid to keep living. I wonder if it’s a lie. I wonder if deep down inside they feel something other than what they’re saying.

  Like Sage.

  After the vigils and before she would’ve switched schools, Sage moved to Montana with her parents and younger sister. They had family there. Her move made it easier for me to push her away even though the last time I talked to her, she was suffering, too.

  “Today was a bad day,” she murmured, confiding in me the way one best friend should be able to confide in the other. “I kept seeing my classroom and that boy who fell over on the desk in front of me. Did I tell you about him? His eyes just rolled right up into his head. Don’t you see it all the time, too?”

  “Can we not talk about it?” I hated when Sage did this. I was trying to block October fifteenth from my head. Her graphic details made that impossible.

  “But nobody here gets it. I need you because you were there. You understand.”

  Her voice was whiny and emphatic, but I couldn’t be the one to be there for Sage. I was two weeks in at a new school I hated and barely keeping myself together. Her suffering was too much a reminder of my own. Plus, there were things about October fifteenth that I couldn’t tell her, so talking to her made me feel terrible. I felt guilty knowing so many people from my school were sad. Angry. Depressed. It made me wish I’d been better at keeping my eyes open.

  “If this is all you want to talk about, I can’t call you anymore,” I said.

  “Well, that’s pretty selfish,” she huffed.

  “I’m sorry.”

  And that’s when I decided that it would just be better if I hid from everyone.

  I didn’t answer my phone or the door. And eventually, people stopped missing me. That’s the great thing about being seventeen. So much can change in only one month. Add two or three to that and it’s like you never existed. The Facebook pictures of people I used to know prove it.

  * * *

  I don’t know why, but I decide to do a search for Evan while I’m sitting here on Facebook. He’s easy to find. My search turns up only one Evan Kokua, and Ewa Beach, Hawaii, is listed as his hometown. I recognize him in his profile picture, his floppy beach hair sticking out all over the place. Golden skin. A wide smile. Big brown almond-shaped eyes. My finger hovers over the mouse, almost ready to click into his “about” section or send a friend request, but I stop myself. I’m not ready to know everything there is to know about Evan. I might find out he’s as amazing as I think he is, and it’ll only make me wish I could be the same way. I log out of Facebook.

  I open a blank document and think I will type out a summary report of the chapter I read for art history. But it doesn’t happen. I start typing something else instead. I write to someone I didn’t think I’d ever write to. I’m writing to him.

  It starts like this:

  Dear Aaron,

  Why did you do what you did?

  It goes on from there. I type fast. I have a whole page written in a matter of minutes. I’ve had so much to say, but nowhere to say it. I tell him about me and who I am now. I tell him what he took away from me even though he doesn’t care. I also tell him things I didn’t think I would say. I say it all because I have to, even if it will go nowhere.

  I print out my letter and sign it. I search through the bottom desk drawer for an envelope. My mom keeps a box of them to send our rent checks to the property management company every month. I fold my letter over twice, shove it into the envelope, and lick it closed. I write his name in the middle. I stare at it. When I see it like that, it feels like a name that doesn’t mean anything. Aaron Tiratore. It could be anybody.

  I don’t know his address. I have a school directory. I get it.

  I shuffle through the pages, my heart squeezing in my chest whenever I see the name of someone who isn’t here anymore. I get to the T section. I find him. I write his address underneath his name. I look again. It still doesn’t mean as much as I want it to. I delete the letter from the computer and shut it down. I’ll work on my art history paper later.

  I take the envelope.

  I go to my room.

  I open the top drawer of my dresser.

  I shove the letter underneath my pajamas.

  I shut the drawer.

  I walk away.

  chapter seven

  Two weekends have passed since Evan and I watched his surf video. I assume he’s found better things to do than visit me. Outside things. Sun, water, and earth things.

  Today is Tuesday and Brenda is back. We’re supposed to walk to the mailbox. Because of that, I’ve been up since dawn. Lying in bed. Anxious and alert.

  The morning sun shoots through the curtains, lighting up the room just enough for me to see Ben curled up under his sheets. I wonder what it would be like to sleep like him. He twitches in his sleep. He has a smile on his lips. I bet he’s dreaming of something good. I’m glad.

  He deserves to know good things.

  One day I will tell Ben the details of what happened. I will tell him because I love him. He only knows the basics. He knows what happened at my school and that I saw very bad things. He knows I don’t leave the house and that I’m afraid. He knows I’m getting help. He knows about Brenda. I hate that he knows these thin
gs. I wish I could protect him from knowing. He’s only a kid.

  The scent from my mom’s coffeemaker wafts down the hallway and underneath my door. I get up and jiggle Ben awake.

  I go to the bathroom and brush my teeth. I pee. I step on the scale. (I don’t know why. I haven’t done that since October fifteenth.) A number stares back at me that I’ve never weighed before. I’ve gained twelve pounds in six months. It’s not like I didn’t know. It’s not like I didn’t see myself in the mirror. It’s not like I haven’t mentioned it to Brenda. Because that twelve pounds is proof.

  Proof that I’m different.

  Proof that I eat grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for lunch every day.

  Proof that I sit on a couch.

  Proof that I go to high school on a computer.

  Proof that I stopped swimming.

  Proof that I’m not the person I was before.

  I used to have long, lean muscles under tanned skin. Now I’m pale white, almost see-through, and I have a ring of fat around my middle that shitty boys on reality TV shows call a muffin top. I used to be able to feel the power in my arms and legs as I sliced through the water of the swimming pool. I used to know the strength of my chest. Of my lungs. Of my heart. I’d probably get winded walking up a flight of stairs now.

  I pinch the fat between my fingers because I want to feel it. I want to make myself aware of how far this has gone. I want to look in the mirror and be mad. Disappointed. Maybe I’ll get so fat that someday the fire department will have to remove me through my bedroom window with a crane. I’ll scratch and scream. I’ll cry and say no. Evan will stand in the courtyard and watch. I’ll beg for everyone to leave me here, among the junk and the mess that is my life. These are the scenarios I play in my mind when I’m feeling extra disgusted with myself.

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