The next morning I woke up feeling like shit. This expression has become too casual, so let me clarify: I felt like a literal turd that had crawled out of someone's ass, missed the toilet and landed on the bathroom tile to lie there, misplaced and disgusting, waiting for its inevitable disposal.
The clock in my room read two-thirty. Half the day had already gone by. I extracted my face from my pillow and forced my body out of the bed. My mouth felt dry and sticky with sleep, I stumbled out of my room and into the bathroom for a glass of water. It tasted weird, like my tongue had forgotten how to work.
After I drank a few paper cupfuls, I dragged my ass back to my room. I didn't want to run into my mom or Richard, who were in bed by the time I got home last and were probably waiting to have words with me. I could do without that. At least until I felt a little better.
It had to be the ecstasy, I thought, collapsing back onto my mattress. Something that made you feel that awesome had to come with consequences. I was still unwilling to consider any other reasons for the feeling of dread weighing down my body.
I laid there for a while, staring up at my ceiling and its lack of glow-in-the-dark starts. I wondered if Adam was awake yet. And if he was feeling anything like I was. I should call him, I decided; misery loves company and all that.
With great difficulty, I reached for the telephone on my nightstand. The dial tone seemed loud in my ear and I hesitated. Would it be a bad idea to recount our illicit activities where Mom or Richard could just pick up a receiver and hear me? I tightened the grip on the phone. I missed the privacy my cell—really missed it. Like I could probably muster up some tears if I really started thinking about how unfair it was that no one had paid the bill yet.
But I would risk the landline, I decided. I just wanted to hear Adam's voice. And I was well aware of how pathetic that made me.
I found his number on my useless cell and dialed. But his phone wasn't even on; it went straight to his generic voicemail greeting. I had to leave a message—a rambling one, because once I started talking, I had no idea what to say. I said hi, and that I hoped he was feeling better than me today, and that I had fun last night. Then I cringed. Was that a normal thing to say, that I had fun? It sounded like something you would say after a date. Embarrassed, I mumbled that he should call me. Then I hung up.
As I laid there on the bed and the day stretched on without me, the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach only grew larger, emptier. Maybe Adam wasn't going to call me back. Maybe he got the message and ignored it. Or just deleted it. I thought, Oh God, what if I end up like Ken? Just calling and calling endlessly and never getting a response. I suddenly felt bad for Ken and his telephone plight. Maybe it was the after-effects of the drug making me feel like this: open, sympathetic, vulnerable. Last night I thought I had it all figured out. I'd been invincible. But today, my defenses were worn away. I was left raw. I had never felt bad about hanging up on Ken before, but now it made me feel like crying. What a jerk I could be.
I tried reminding myself how Ken was a self-centered asshole with a condescending sense of humor. I thought about the letter and the twenty dollars in the envelope, hoping to muster up some anger. But I couldn't get angry over something that didn't even make sense.
I rolled onto my stomach and wrapped my arms around my pillow. I couldn't remember the last time I'd washed the pillow case; it had a stale human smell to it, kind of like pee, but I buried my face in it anyway. Pillows are very homey, comforting things. Like mothers, but more reliable.
I wanted to shut my eyes again and not think about Ken, but it was too late. The memories had started to wash over me in waves. I was a tiny boat out in the open water and all I could do was tuck in my sails and hold on.
The day I found out Ken was leaving.
The day I found out Ken was leaving, we were at his house, messing around with his birthday present.
He'd turned fourteen earlier that week, and I'd given him a Polaroid Onestep SX-70 that I'd found, last minute, at the second hand shop between the library and the McDonalds. I only knew what kind of camera it was, because the guy at the shop spent forever trying to sell it to me. He said it was from the late 70s, which made it retro rather than old and he gave me a discount on the film, which was crazy expensive anyway. At twenty bucks for the camera and another ten for the hard-to-find film, this was the most expensive present I'd ever bought with my own money. The Polaroid had an off-white face with a rainbow stripe running down the center, under the lens, and I couldn't stop making jokes about how I had bought Ken a gay camera.
"What makes a camera gay?" Ken asked, checking the shot we'd set up through the viewfinder. A dozen little army men set up on the dark wood seat of Ken's desk chair, illuminated by the sun through the half-open window blinds. "Does it like other cameras of the same gender?"
"Obviously," I said. I sat down on his bed.
Ken was frowning at the army men now. He looked good with a camera in his hands. He'd wanted to take an after school photography class, but his mother had refused to let him.
"I'm not convinced by this," he said.
"No?" I flopped onto my back. Ken had taken three pictures since I gave him the camera, and they were thumbtacked in a straight line to the wall above his bed. One showed the view out his bedroom window, with enough curtain obscuring the shot to make it look kinda artsy; one was of a peeled orange; and the third was of his mother, her face turned so far away you could see her eyelashes but not her eye.
When I looked back at Ken, he was looking at me through the viewfinder.
"Don't take my picture!" I balked, scooting back against the headboard.
"Smile," Ken said and I didn't have a chance. He punched the shutter.
"That was low," I told Ken. He nudged me over and sat down on the bed, flapping the fresh Polaroid back and forth in his hand.
"I wanted a photo of you," he said.
He kept flapping the Polaroid, not answering me. Then he stopped and squinted at it before holding it out between us. "It's developing. Look."
I rolled my eyes, but I wound up looking anyway. I'd never had one of these camera before and it was mesmerizing watching the image appear.
Only after the colors really started to develop, did I realize what a ridiculous picture Ken had captured. The first thing I noticed was that my shirt had ridden up, exposing a stripe of my stomach. The way my arm was positioned it appeared that I was actually lifting my shirt. Then there was the stupid, surprised look on my face.
"Ken!" I complained.
"I like it," he said. He leaned closer to me to squeeze my leg. "It looks like you were doing something dirty."
I took another quick look at the photo before confirming that no, it looked like I was doing something stupid. "You should destroy it," I said, making a half-hearted grab for it. Ken held it away.
"I'm gonna keep it. I’ll take it with me."
I stopped trying to reach for the photo. "Take it with you where?"
Ken was was suddenly very interested in inspecting the camera. "When I leave for school in the fall.”
I clambered up to a seating position. "When you leave for school?" I looked for eye contact but couldn't find it. Ken was still staring at the camera in his lap, his dark hair hiding half his face like a curtain. "What are you talking about?"
There's a long silence where I'm tempted to grab him by the collar and make him look at me. Then he says, "I got into Choat. I told you, didn't I?"
"You said your mom made you apply." I swallowed, trying to tamp down the sudden lump in my throat. "You also said you weren't going to go."
"Well…I didn't know if I'd get in, so…"
I stared at Ken, my mouth hanging open.
"I meant to tell you sooner," he said. "I did, but you kept talking about us going to high school together and I thought you…I didn't want you to be upset." He offered this weird guilty smile, like he just expected me to go oh, okay then. No problem.
I just kept staring. It didn't even seem real, what Ken had just told me. I didn't believe it. Ken was the only reason I wasn't dreading high school; we were supposed to go together. We were supposed to be together. I'd really started to think, even if there were bullies, even if being a freshman totally sucked, at least I'd have Ken. At the end of the day, I'd still have Ken.
I don't think I even realized how happy I was until Ken jerked it all out from under me.
And there he was: sitting there on the bed like nothing was the fucking matter, holding that camera that cost me a more than a month's allowance.
I stood up and, with a violent swing of my leg, overturned the desk chair. Army men bailed off it in every direction. They crunched under my sneakers as I turned back to face Ken. I might have appreciated the drama of the moment if I wasn't too upset to see straight.
I cut him off. "You're leaving? And you're telling me now?"
He started to say something like, he didn't leave for another three weeks (three weeks!) and he hadn't known how to tell me. But I didn't want to let him talk.
"You're a fucking asshole, Ken!" I yelled. It was the meanest thing I'd ever said to anyone and I turned around and left, before I could change my mind.
That was the last time I saw him.
A knock on the door jolted me from my wallowing, and I barely had time to lift my face from the pillow before Richard opened the door. Richard!
"Hey, kiddo," he said. "It's past noon and your mom thought I should roust you."
He'd only opened the door a crack, but the fact that he'd barely knocked, the fact that he was just standing there, and the fact that he was not my mom filled me with a sudden burst of rage.
"Get out of my room!" I yelled.
To my surprise, he did.
He would tell my mom, I was sure of it—he'd tell her and she would be pissed at me, but you know what, I could live with that. What was she even going to do about it? It didn't matter anyway. None of it did. I pulled the blankets up over my head and tried not to wish I was dead.
Up next Thursday, Chapter 25: Fakes.