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Underwater a novel, p.5

Underwater: A Novel, page 5

 

Underwater: A Novel
 


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  I’ve admitted out loud to Brenda that I don’t like the way I look. She tried to reassure me. She said I don’t look as bad as I think I do. “You’re more different on the inside than the outside,” she insisted. “And that’s why you’re being so hard on yourself.”

  My mom says I look softer but not unhealthy. “You’re not swimming right now. That’s all.” She says this in that no-nonsense way she has.

  Ben says he likes my hair better like this. I’ve lost the chlorine damage. I call it frizzy. He calls it curly. “You still look like a mermaid,” he tells me, squeezing my cheeks between his sticky hands.

  I go to my room to get dressed. I pull on jeans. They’re tight. I strain to zip the zipper and button the button, but I’m determined to get them on. I need to feel how tight they are. When I’m finally wearing them, I’m instantly uncomfortable. I long for my pajamas. But I want to wear jeans for Brenda. She wants me to go outside.

  * * *

  My mom stops short when she walks into the kitchen. I’m standing at the counter, packing Ben’s lunch while he sits on a stool shoveling cereal into his mouth with an oversize spoon.

  “You look nice,” she says. It’s a small thing to say, but it means a lot, maybe even more to her than to me.

  She pours a cup of coffee, then sits down on the stool next to Ben to sift through the pile of mail on our counter. I fill reusable containers with carrots, cheese, and apple slices, then arrange them inside Ben’s lunch box.

  “Too much healthy stuff,” Ben says.

  “I want you to live forever,” I tell him.

  Ben gets up and goes to the sink. He dumps out his leftover milk and rinses his cereal bowl and spoon.

  Everything about us feels very productive at the moment. We all have a role. Like each of us is an integral part of a team. I like this feeling. It’s how we should be all the time. But then Ben and my mom leave, and I’m back to working solo again.

  chapter eight

  I sit at the computer in my too-tight jeans. I have to do a live session for my US history class before Brenda gets here. I hate live sessions, but my online high school requires that I participate in them twice a month for most of my classes. And by “participate,” they mean actually interact with other students and a teacher in a real-time chat session. My non-live lessons are recorded and I can log in any time of day to watch them. At the end of the year, I will have to take finals with a proctor.

  I try not to think about that.

  I log on to my school website and wait for my teacher to start typing. Since my school only exists online, I sometimes wonder if my teachers are hanging out in their living rooms wearing pajamas the same way I usually do.

  There are six other people in my session today. Their names are there in the bottom corner of my screen: Luke, Zhang Min, Amanda, Roberto, Blue, and Victor. I don’t know anything about them besides their names. I don’t know if they do school online for the reasons most people do—they’re famous or super religious or have a medical condition—or because they’re like me and too afraid of real school.

  My teacher, Mr. Chase, types out a few lines to summarize what we read about the Cold War.

  Mr. Chase: During the Cold War years, we had an America in an elevated state of tension with the Soviet Union. Entire generations were raised with the constant threat of nuclear attack. What do you make of that? How can you compare or contrast it with today’s America?

  There is a little red hand icon that we’re supposed to click on to chat, like we’re raising our hand. There is also a thumbs-up icon if we want to let someone know we liked something they said. And there’s another icon of two hands clapping if we’re falling all over ourselves about someone’s brilliance. I never tap them.

  Victor: It’s scarier now.

  Mr. Chase: How so?

  Zhang Min: There’s actually been an attack. On 9/11.

  Amanda: Yeah. That makes us similar to the kids from the Cold War generations. We’re all waiting for something bad to happen, too.

  Blue: That’s stupid. What a waste of time.

  Mr. Chase: Blue, I’m all for thoughtful debate here, but remember to be respectful of your fellow students.

  Blue: Sorry, Mr. Chase. But honestly, what’s the point of wasting all your time worrying about something that might never happen?

  Morgan: Because that’s what people do.

  Blue: No it isn’t. I don’t. That’s what crazy people do.

  Okay. Seriously? What kind of a name is Blue? Is Blue a boy or a girl? I don’t even know. But I kind of wish I could smack him or her through the computer right now.

  Mr. Chase: Blue does bring up something interesting. At what point does preparation or overpreparation for disaster become a counterproductive exercise?

  Roberto: When it becomes all you think about. When you get obsessed.

  Amanda chimes in with a thumbs-up. Blue chimes in with the applause icon. I need an eye-roll icon.

  Morgan: Don’t you think it’s okay to prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario?

  Blue: Worst-case scenario is that I’m dead, so why should I even bother worrying about it? There’s no point in living to just worry about dying. There’s a difference between being prepared and being afraid. You shouldn’t stop living your life just because you’re scared.

  Victor: Applause.

  Luke: Applause.

  Zhang Min: Applause.

  Amanda: Thumbs-up.

  And that’s pretty much how the rest of the live session goes. It’s all hand-clapping and thumbs-ups and Blue being snarky.

  I’m so relieved when it’s over.

  * * *

  I have become someone who just gets by in school. My grades aren’t what they were before. They aren’t straight A’s worthy of scholarships. Aside from calculus, my grades are just good enough. Brenda seems satisfied that I’m still trying. My mom says she’s happy I haven’t quit. But I know this isn’t what she wanted for me. I was supposed to be the first one in our family who got out. I loved English and was great at math. I took AP classes and enthusiastically participated in class discussions and essay contests. I once wrote my own Canterbury Tale for extra credit. Between my academics and swimming, it was a given that most of my college education would be financed through scholarships. My mom was counting on it. I was supposed to be the one who did something. I was supposed to lead the way for Ben.

  But now I’m just good enough.

  And sometimes I’m not even that.

  * * *

  I flop down on the couch and think of things while I’m waiting for Brenda. I think of Evan a lot because I can’t help it. I think of the smell of him and the way he was after we watched the surf video. That was eleven days ago. I wanted to believe he liked my company. But when the video was over and he stood up from the couch to walk to the front door, I figured I’d either said too much or too little. Because he was leaving instead of staying.

  The video was only fifteen minutes long. I wished it had been longer. I wished it had been all night. When we got to my door, he hovered at the threshold. The moon was big and fat and full in the sky behind him. It lit up the whole courtyard. Music seeped out from an open window in the apartment across the way. It was something fitting for a warm night. Something I would’ve listened to before going to a party last summer. It had a lazy, strummy guitar and syrupy-sweet lyrics. It was the kind of music that would’ve made me think the night held the promise of something.

  Sage, Chelsea, Brianna, and I would pull up to the curb in front of a house by the beach.

  The front doors would be open.

  There would be music and laughter and a crowd of people spilling out into the yard.

  We’d stand on the sidewalk reapplying lip gloss and smoothing out spaghetti-strapped sundresses.

  We’d follow one another to the front door, leaving a trail of various fruit-scented body washes behind us.

  I’d stop at the stairs.

  There would be a boy I kn
ew on the porch.

  He would have a beer and a sunburn.

  He’d be leaning in a way that made me want to listen.

  He would motion me over and we’d talk for hours.

  Later, I would kiss him underneath a street lamp.

  His tongue would taste like beer and his hair would smell like the handmade waffle cones from the ice-cream shop where he worked.

  It would all be so perfect.

  And then it would be gone.

  Standing at my front door with Evan was nothing like that. It was just a night. There were no streetlamps or friends. There were no promises of anything.

  He had pushed back on his heels. “Well, thanks for watching my video.”

  “Thanks for showing me. It was cool.”

  I wanted him to stay. Would he think I was crazy if I asked him to do that? Just say it, I thought. My mom and Ben would be at the birthday party for a while still. It would be easy to hang out. But I didn’t say it. I didn’t say a word.

  Even though that music was playing, there was a silence between us.

  “Do you think you’ll be back at school soon?” he asked.

  I knew I had to tell him. “I don’t really go to school. I do school here. On the computer.”

  “Whoa. That’s so cool.”

  He didn’t get it. He looked at me like I was something special. Like I didn’t need school because I was better than that.

  The front gate pounded shut, the clash of metal echoing through the courtyard. It made me jump and retreat farther inside. Evan looked down below and held his hand up to wave.

  “It’s my mom,” he told me.

  She came up the stairs. She wore a flowy skirt and a blouse that floated out behind her. She was tan. She was pretty. She was tall, but not as tall as Evan. Like him, she looked like she’d just stepped off the sand. But when she got closer, I saw her under the brightness of the porch light. I saw something else. I saw dark circles under her brown eyes and the exhausted slope of her shoulders.

  Evan leaned in to hug her, then introduced us when they broke apart.

  “Morgan, Janice. Janice, Morgan.”

  Evan’s mom stifled a yawn, then held her hand out to me. When I took it in mine, I could feel the bones through her skin.

  “I’m so sorry I haven’t come by to introduce myself,” she said. “Things have been…” She paused, searching for the right word, finally settling on “busy.”

  I told her I understood even though I didn’t. I had no idea what it was like to be busy anymore. My life before was busy all the time. Every second I lived had something in it. But not now.

  “I need a shower,” she announced. “I’m glad I finally met the neighbors. Or, well, one of the neighbors.”

  She ruffled Evan’s hair the same way I do to Ben, only she had to stretch up to reach him. He looked embarrassed. And then she headed inside, the screen door slapping shut behind her.

  “Well, that’s my mom.”

  “What does she do?”

  “Everything.” Evan sounded tired just thinking about it. “My aunt’s having a rough time, so my mom took over running her restaurant while she works through some things. She knows what to do because their parents owned a diner when they were growing up. But the hours aren’t easy. My mom’s always there instead of here.”

  “You must be lonely.”

  He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s okay. I understand why she has to do it. And it’s a job. We couldn’t exactly move here unless she had one.”

  I probably could’ve asked a whole bunch of questions that would’ve convinced Evan to tell me his whole life story, but I didn’t want to sound like Brenda. Sometimes it’s nice to know someone without having to talk all the time.

  chapter nine

  Brenda comes at one p.m. just like she said she would. She always does exactly what she promises. She’s wearing leopard-print workout pants and a sweatshirt. She has on running shoes like she is going to compete in a 5K for rock stars instead of just trying to convince me to walk to the mailbox.

  “Nice jeans. Does this mean you’re ready?” She says this like she’s known I’d go all along.

  Of course, I can feel all the things I can’t control happening to my body. My erratic heartbeat. My armpit sweat. My stomach cramps. I know Brenda can tell because she puts her hand on my shoulder and squeezes it, anchoring me.

  “It’s okay. We can start right here,” she says.

  I look at her standing outside my door like it’s no big deal. It seems so simple. Why can’t I go? Why can’t I just cross the threshold and step outside? I think hard. I can’t do it. I turn my back to her to head inside. She grabs my shoulder and urges me back around. There’s something about the way she regards me right then. It’s in the shift of her hip and the squint in her eyes.

  “You’re ready for this, you know?” We make eye contact. It’s the kind of eye contact that means something. She makes me believe her.

  And maybe that’s all I need, because before I know it, I’ve pushed myself through the door. But the physical reaction to what I’ve done is instantaneous. I’m standing on the welcome mat, but it feels more like I’m standing on the edge of an airplane wing in flight. I wobble, out of control. My senses ramp up times one thousand. The sun is so bright that it makes my eyes water. The air is so fresh that it stings my nostrils. The birds tweet so loud that it hurts my ears. But Brenda still stands there, looking at me, knowing I can do it. So I stay put, feet planted on the ground.

  “How are you feeling right now?” she asks.

  “Overwhelmed.” I’m sugarcoating. The more accurate word is terrified.

  “You should be proud of yourself. I’m proud of you.”

  I look at her, and it’s obvious she means what she says. I fall to my knees, right on top of our welcome mat, and sob. I rock back and forth, clutching my stomach because I want to be able to shove the feelings back inside. But I can’t. I cry, loud and long. Brenda squats down next to me. She puts her hand on my shoulder. I feel it. There’s just enough force to let me know she has me and that I won’t float away.

  “It’s okay,” she says. “You’re okay. It’s a big step. You’re going to be emotional. But you got outside. I might’ve overestimated with the mailbox. We’ll go slower. Baby steps. Just know that I hear you.”

  Her voice is soothing. Her words still me. My crying calms. I can catch a breath. It’s decided that I won’t go farther than this today. But this far is still good.

  We finish up our hour on the welcome mat. She asks me if it feels good to be outside.

  “I like the smell of the air,” I admit. And then we talk about it.

  She asks me what I notice. What I hear. What I see. “Does it seem different?”

  I try to explain what it feels like to be here. Outside. It’s more than visceral. It’s emotional, too. I try to put that into words. Brenda says she understands.

  She doesn’t even write anything down. When I ask her why, she says it’s because she doesn’t need notes to remember this. She tells me that today was a breakthrough. She says it’s literally the first step out the door.

  “How did you know I was ready?” I ask when we stand up again.

  “I didn’t. It was only an idea I had. Something I wanted to try. When I showed up and you were wearing jeans, which is different for you, I was hopeful but still not sure. I was prepared for you to change your mind. But then you turned around to go back inside earlier, and I noticed you had a letter sticking out of your back pocket. And then I knew I was right. Without a doubt.”

  I stand and stare at Brenda.

  “Writing is a powerful thing, Morgan. I don’t know who that letter is for, but my guess is that writing it made you feel better. You should keep writing. Putting things down in words might help you to process them.”

  She sounds really sure. She makes me believe it was a good idea.

  After Brenda leaves I go to my room. I put the letter back in my top dresser drawer, saving
it for another day.

  chapter ten

  Brenda was right. It feels good to write things down. I spend the rest of the afternoon on my bed, writing stuff in an old notebook. I write about things I want to remember. Short paragraphs that read like photographs.

  I write about the first time I urged Ben underwater for half a second in a swimming pool when he was a year old. I write about the way his eyes bugged out when I pulled him back to the surface. He clung to me and I felt bad for scaring him. The summer after my freshman year, when I began teaching swim lessons at the community pool, I realized I went too fast. There are steps I should’ve taken to prepare him. Thankfully, by then, Ben swam like a fish. I was relieved I hadn’t made him afraid of the water.

  I write about the way my mom and I used to drive around to garage sales when her belly was fat and full of Ben and my dad was in Afghanistan. Piece by piece, weekend by weekend, we found everything we needed for a new baby. My dad was excited for Ben to come, even though he wouldn’t be there for his birth. When we talked on the phone, he would tell me I was going to be the best big sister in the world.

  “The key is to hold the baby so they can hear your heartbeat,” he told me. “That’s how I used to get you to sleep. And once you fell asleep, it was so peaceful and you were so sweet, I didn’t want to put you in your crib. So I’d hold you until I fell asleep, too.” He sighed. Wistful. “Sometimes all the way until morning.”

  I write about what it feels like to tear down the lane of a swimming pool and how all the noise gets blocked out. I write about what it feels like to touch the wall at the end of a race and pop my head up to check my time on the scoreboard. I write about my mom cheering. I write about winning.

  I write about people I used to know and how I used to be. When I was a friend of girls. And a girlfriend of boys.

  And finally, I write a letter to Evan because I want to. I want to know him. My words are real. I have to say them. Because there are things about me he needs to understand if he’s going to know me. And they’re things I can’t imagine saying to his face. Not yet. Writing is safe. I tell him what happened and what I’m like now. I tell him I stay inside because I’m afraid. I tell him I’m working on it, but I don’t know if I’ll ever change. I tell him he’s the first person I’ve wanted to know in a very long time. I tell him things that are real and true, and I hope admitting them will make him come back, because the last eleven days of not seeing him have felt like a really long time.

 
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