I edited and submitted this for my second draft.
“Instead of the word ‘love’ there was an enormous heart, a symbol sometimes used by people who have trouble figuring out the difference between words and shapes.”
Lemony Snicket, The Carnivorous Carnival
The morning after Adrian’s mother’s funeral, I all but hated my own parents. Even the dead one, but I couldn’t imagine the reaction I’d get if I told anyone. So I shut my mouth about it and moved on; didn’t even tell the cat, though I’m sure she knew before I did.
I mean, I’d tell everybody in the world I loved my dad, and in some twisted way I definitely did- he was no Glass Castle material- actually, I wouldn’t even know, I never even knew the man’s middle name; nevertheless, I still said prayers every night for him and I always remembered his birthday was May 29th, or 28th maybe- but since my mom died he just kind of….went away. Went away in the middle of the night and got lost, maybe lost on the way back, but lost just the same. And I was fairly young when it all happened; I wasn’t even fourteen, actually, which was the story I stuck to- it all became very symbolic of how well I dealt with the situation, really. I had stories I stuck to that I told everyone if by chance they got curious, but since no one this side of the Atlantic had ever even met her, I was pretty much safe and didn’t need to lie.
My house was empty on Wednesday morning, and for the first time in a while it unnerved me, with all the creaky floors and wobbly banisters- I had the irrational thought the house was going to collapse over me. Penelope, my overfed asshole of a Persian cat, banged the lower kitchen cabinets open and shut, waiting to be fed. My mom taught her to do that, if I’m not mistaken- it seemed like the kind of thing she would’ve done, anyway. My mom never grew up when she was feeling well enough for the job. Penelope, for better or for worse, was more her than any picture or any piece of jewelry or any painting. Penelope liked to make noise, knock things over, and be petted.
I taught Penelope when we moved here that if I pointed to something she could nudge it over if I gave her enough time, so after I few minutes she managed to head-butt a tin of instant coffee in my general direction, and we sat at the kitchen table together, watching the Today show and eating stale Cheerios and cat food, respectively. She meowed to me constantly about the mice I still needed to set traps for in the cabinets, which was probably why she was so fat.
There was always very little dialogue between the humans in our house in Albuquerque. My father, Klaus Ritter, who always spoke very rough English even after living with my mom for sixteen years (and she had never learned a word of German in her life), worked for the postal service from the minute we got off the plane, so he was gone from before sunup to sundown almost every day but Thanksgiving and the odd flu. And I knew he drank pretty heavily, but in the distant way one knew there were spiders in the attic or a war in a country ending in –istan. I would see him sometimes if he woke me by accident early in the morning, and always spoke to me in German, and always kept it to pleasantries, and even more so expected of all these things- always claimed he was late for work and left like a bat out of hell.
I couldn’t describe even him to the cops if they had asked me.
My mom, Maria, hung herself sometime on March 11th. I always found it such an odd little coincidence, being the year of the American 9/11. It was my first grasp on terrorism as a kid.
I know better now.
I found her getting ready for school that next morning, at about seven. I don’t remember reacting very much- well, because it wasn’t a shock. I’d always known something like this was coming, in a really sick way, ill-prepared as I still was. She’d barely gotten out of bed since that last October, and she had even told me I could have her paintbrushes, so it was all but set in stone. I didn’t even wake my dad for a while, I know that much. But I do remember cutting her down. She’d been a lot more weight than I expected, and she thudded to the tile.
Maybe I even dropped her; I was just done. I called the rettungssanitäter (they were like the EMTs in Germany) and made them deal with her.
I made my father send her ashes back to my grandmother, who hadn’t spoken to her since she ran off with my father. There was a card with my last school photo, even.
We left two weeks later to the very day. I don’t think we even sold the house; maybe just gave the deed away. I barely had time or the suitcases to pack anything, but I realized after packing for a few hours that I didn’t want much, and I gave a lot of it away. It was all just stuff. It was all just stuff that pretty much meant nothing by then. So, I had one suitcase: I came to the States with three pairs of jeans, six pairs of boxers, five shirts, and sneakers. And the suit I wore to my mom’s funeral. I also had a box of my mom’s jewelry that I never let out of my sight the whole plane ride: two pearl necklaces, a ring I found for her at a yard sale when I was probably five or six (it was just a plastic mood ring, I realized sadly when I was older, and on top of that stopped working some time ago, but she still held on to it), diamond earrings, and lots of rings all fit tight in a stained glass box my father bought for her. She always said she was very young when he gave it to her. I never knew how young, and never got the nerve to ask.
By the time we moved and I got enough clothes to last me a week and my father found a job, I had gotten very used to watching everything go so very wrong. I’d already seen my mom throw herself down the stairs six weeks pregnant when I was nine, so I had gone threadbare a long time ago.
But no one ever let me forget what was right. I mean, if there were ever people so great at torture, it was the endlessly positive.
So there were undoubtedly days I liked my dad better. Things never got worse with him.
After I did all the dishes (my dad never touched a dirty dish in his life, but I didn’t really mind), I left an over-lengthy message for Adrian to call me. She always hated when I texted her when I didn’t have to; we only texted during school.
I never told her quite how much she meant to me, ever. If I did, though, she’d have thought I was an insane, homicidal, Norman Bates stalker. But she was my sunshine most of the time.
We met in our freshman English class (and Guitar, and Algebra II, but I don’t think Adrian even knew that for a while) during one of those dumb icebreaker things the first day of school. It was really a horrible day; I was having a hard time talking through my accent, and ended up pointing to boxes and getting really frustrated, besides I was only half-unpacked and hadn’t showered in a bit, and we were still sleeping on the floor.
Adrian was the only one in the class with green eyes. I remember that much very clearly. In all three classes. Apparently the percentages for the green-eye gene is particularly low.
Adrian came to sit with me at lunch two days later, and brought along my spitting image, who turned out to be Syd. We ended up truly being nothing alike except we both would’ve done anything for Adrian. But both of us were smart enough to figure out we were gonna need each other if only for some sort of stalemate agreement. But I knew he could have Adrian if he tried harder than me. Jeez, he could’ve had Catherine, and she hid her dad’s gun in her car. I’d seen it.
Adrian asked me to homecoming in October (and I found out Syd was just about to ask her, so I found other ways to class for the rest of the year), and I almost admitted myself into the psych ward just to get some peace. I was stalking her Facebook, I wouldn’t leave her alone; I bought her a corsage and found a suit and even met her dad- I wasn’t sure I was gonna live through that last one.
I would’ve told her I loved her right after that if it was socially acceptable. It’s not, apparently.
December the world found out she was bipolar, exciting as things were before. Actually, there had been little things I’d picked up on, things I remembered way too well from my mom, so when the alleged Big Break took place I wasn’t too terribly shocked. But it was still hard to put on paper that no one had any quick fixes- it made sense in a really sick way, though. She was difficult from day one, so why should this be any different?
Men are usually after girls just like their mothers, I’m told. If that weren’t a bad thing, in this case.
We were in English, 2nd period, when we both saw everything go sour. We’d barely spoken for days, and she never answered her phone if I tried. Her mom had even said to keep an eye on her. I think it was that the teacher was calling on her and she was just zoning out or something really small like that, but when she didn’t answer, this really stupid kid Ethan said some bad joke about Hellen Keller. After that, the whole class, including myself, sat completely still- it was like watching Frankenstein on mute- and watched Adrian all in one fluid motion stand, swing her backpack over her shoulder, and walk over to Ethan’s desk. She shoved his head down on the desk by the back of the neck, told him to go to hell, and spit in his face.
Adrian was gone before anyone knew what had happened.
I don’t really know why, but nobody moved for a few seconds, including Ethan, whose nose was at a ninety-degree angle and bleeding profusely. Finally, I got up, looked at the teacher, spluttering, “You’re not even-“
I took off after her. Everyone let me go.
I’d had to run for a long time to catch up to her; she was across the street from the bus stop when I caught up to her.
I yanked her back from the road on a red light, and slammed her up against the side of a building, fifty feet from a crosswalk. She tried to push me off but I was stronger than her.
“No,” I had said so foolishly, completely breathless and desperate. She tried to push me away with one hand and I pinned both against the building, fighting with her stupidly and cursing at her, tears in my eyes by then. I was still a lot stronger than her. “Don’t…..you….dare.” I heaved, resorting to holding her back by her hair in my fist, feeling half-manic and futile, and our noses inches from touching. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she bit me. I was almost afraid to be so close to her.
Adrian swore at me breathlessly, and quite creatively, pushing me back and punching at me furiously, but I never moved. I sat her down and we were very quiet for a while, but I never took my eyes off her once, and I made her eat something eventually, and I made her call her mom to say she was all right.
“Everybody knows, Danny.” She said after a while; the first thing she had said in hours.
“Well, I don’t know about that; I knew since the day I met Ethan that he’s a little snot.”
Then, Adrian leaned over and kissed me, really softly, laughing, and I knew I was headed down the worst road I could find- but it was so wonderful and I couldn’t resist; no one could’ve in my place.
We decided that that’s the day we officially started dating- December 1st.
I started painting the pictures for our anniversary two weeks before. I had twenty-eight days and theoretically seven paintings to go. I felt like it was all I was good for- I’d been painting her for a whole year, so I may as well be out about it.
I was always a painter, or pretty sure I was. My mom and I used to paint together when I was a kid, when she felt good. Sometimes all I can ever think about is trying to get her out of bed always promising I’ll stay home and we can go to the paint store today, and watching it not work sometimes, and then waiting for that one day I finally get her back again. I was always hopeful. I can always think when I’m painting.
Adrian’s first painting came out better than I expected; I had even bought spare paper in case they really sucked. My mom found out when I was seven that my perception of the whole red spectrum was completely wrong, so I always made sure to read the color names twice before I use them. Well, I still accidentally painted people with pink hair every now and then. The first one was a portrait of Adrian, sitting in profile. It was the first time I even saw her, actually- I used a stalker picture I took of her- she was sitting at lunch, talking with her friends. Laughing. I painted without the others in there, because they’re whited out in the photo and I couldn’t even remember who was there.
The second one would hopefully be when I found her near the bus, but I was trying to paint her pinned against the wall, and painting dimension like that is harder than it looks, even if you sketch it first. I wanted the look in her eyes. How angry she was. She wasn’t just angry- she was horrified. She was this horrid monster herself. I hoped it turned out good enough for her. I hoped it all did.
I worked for two hours, until I was pretty much painted head to toe. Ian called me while I was painting.
“Hey,” I had said passively, opening up the windows to air out the paint smell. I never noticed it until I finished.
“Hey, do you have guitar picks?”
”Just the three billion you’ve left here.” He laughed. I liked Ian, but in small doses, I think. He could be a smart-aleck, but never meant anything but good for anyone. And the kid could talk to a snail and make conversation. Ian also owed me two grand for fixing some scratches on his dad’s Mustang when he and Dave snuck it out for a weekend, but I don’t mention it; he felt bad for a long time.
With very little preamble, “Hey, you wanna do my Geometry homework, buddy?” He said excitedly, music playing in the background. And maybe Dave was there, too.
“I was gonna check on Adrian in a bit; get Dave to do it. I wanna see how she’s holding up.” Ian got quiet.
“Oh yeah; I-I couldn’t go to the funeral, but we went to the vigil the day after the crash, Danny. It was crazy; you wouldn’t believe how many people were there! II don’t think I’ve ever even met that many people in my life! When you see Adrian, tell her we’re all thinking of her. And we hope she comes back to school soon; Dave said he’ll even catch her up on the Geometry notes.” He added cheerily.
“Did he really say that?”
“He will when I suggest what a good idea it is.” I rolled my eyes, scraping paint out from underneath my nails.
“Whatever you say, powderpuff.”
“Okay, well, tell her we both love her a lot. And you know I’m not just speaking for him.” Ian said moodily.
“I got ya. Hopefully I can get her to come back tomorrow, okay?” He cheered.
“Alright, I gotta go. Love you, bro. See ya.”
It took me a while to find clean clothes and the keys to my dad’s car. He rode the bus to work, has since he got work. It’s this real rusted-out Taurus, and I tried to work on it when I could, but that took cash, which I should’ve gotten from working at the bookstore theoretically, if Manny there didn’t feel like paying me in books I had been wanting. It had four tires, though, so I didn’t complain out loud. My dad was six-foot-three, though, and I already had to push the seat all the way back to squeeze myself in, so I have no idea how he ever fit.
Driving through town (Adrian lived on the east side, I suppose, with the impromptu move), I stopped at the market to find flowers, and I picked up a half-dozen double-claws (Adrian’s favorite; the things kind of grew on me after a while, too), and no one saw me leaving. I accidentally forgot my wallet.
I knocked, “How is she?” I asked James, coming in their front door and passively watching him snatch the flowers from me, not even fighting it.
“Didn’t sleep.” He shrugged putting them in water. “She’s in her room, being a mope. I’m out of moves, kiddo.” I nodded, trying to be understanding. But at least he tried. When my mom died, no one even tried to make me feel better. We just moved away from everything that had to do with her.
“You aren’t gonna take credit for my flowers, are you?” James smiled grimly.
He shot me a look, “Would I take advantage of your ill-gotten gains, Mr. Pricetag?” He waved the $7.99 tag in my face before dumping it in the trashcan.
“Eh, forgot my wallet.” I shrugged.
“Been there, done that. Judy’s gonna get her to go to school tomorrow; she’s about had enough.” I snorted, my hand wringing until my knuckles popped.
“Yeah, I gather patience is her strong suit.”
“Good joke.” James stood arms akimbo in front of the hall threshold, like we learned in psych class, trying to look larger than he is, arbitrarily guarding me from Adrian’s room. He looked more like an overgrown Boy Scout.
“I can stop by and pick her up, you know. Just to get her out of bed and everything.” I looked briefly for a way around him, then realized he wasn’t actually doing it on purpose. He was just nervous as hell.
“That’d be good. She might need to be dragged. She hasn’t really gotten out of bed for a while.”
James paused for a long time, almost staring me down. I stared back, then couldn’t help but look away sheepishly. He stood as close as he could to me without being odd, so close I could smell his aftershave. I think it was the same stuff Adrian bought for me.
“May I-may I see her?” He nodded hurriedly, fumbling out of my way stupidly.
“Go-go right ahead, son.” I nodded quietly, uncomfortable, as he backed away, and he may have even fully left the apartment, but I didn’t pay attention.
In the few seconds before I knocked on Adrian’s door, gathering some sort of haphazard strength, I wondered briefly if I even wanted to go in. If I should’ve. Maybe it was better for everyone if I left right now.
If Adrian hadn’t asked me to come in a second later, I think I would’ve left everyone and never come back, to be quite honest.
“Come in,” Adrian called before I had the chance to touch the door, even. I nudged it open with my foot weakly, smiling at the sight of her. She wore my track sweatshirt and the biggest smile I’d ever seen on a person.
“Hey, sweetie,” She jumped off her bed excitedly, launching into my arms. I caught her with a sharp intake of breath, holding in the smell of her.
“So, we all decided you’re coming back to school tomorrow.” I told her immediately, wiping her still tear-stained cheeks. I set her down, holding her hands in mine, “Deal?”
“But it’ll be Thursday. That’s weird.”
“Get over it. And Ian and Dave already said they’d help you catch up on homework, because we all know mine’s all wrong, right?” She giggled wonderfully, clutching my waist. My breath quivered, holding her tight, quiet.
“Yes, that is right.”
“So, deal?” She nodded once. I held tight to her for a bit more, trying to be as usual what I’m not, what I wish I were, what I should be, what everyone else might be, maybe what I would’ve been if my mom were around. Hell, maybe Adrian’s on the same playing field now.
God, that’s a horrid thought. It sent chills up my spine at the thought, in fact.
“Everything is going to be fine, Adrian.” I said adoringly.
“Okay.” She just said in blind faith.