The phone rang again. Angie, surely? Something she forgot to tell me. I grabbed at the phone, my still-wet fingers slipping once before gaining purchase on the smooth, flat slab of metal and glass. “Hello? Angie?”
But it wasn’t her. “No, I…this isn’t a wrong number, is it?” The woman on the other end recited my first and last name, then recounted how she found my number scrawled on a folded scrap of yellowing paper, tucked into the pocket of a jacket she once wore to camp.
“…Kaitlyn?” Unbelievably, it was. She explained that finding the phone number brought back happy memories from camp, so she thought she’d call me and find out where my life went. Of all the fucking days to call, she chose this one.
“Listen I…it’s just, I’m in the middle of something. I mean… there is something important I have to go and do. Can I…get back to you?” I hesitated at the last part because I knew it was a fib. She said I sounded like I’d been crying, and asked what the matter was.
“It’s…nothing. There’s this thing I’ve been putting off. I really need to get to it.” She asked if I had a little bit of time. Said she’d spent the evening working up the nerve to call, and wanted to say some things to me.
Angie just indulged me in the same way a minute prior, so I could not find it within myself to refuse her. “Do…do you remember the day we all lined up to do the piggyback hike? The girls and boys paired off, every boy carrying one of the girls on his back up the hill.”
I answered that I did vaguely recall. “Oh, good. I certainly do. I was…a little heavier than the other girls. Haha, I don’t need to tell you, I’m sure you remember. None of the other boys would carry me. There were more boys than girls, but even the extras refused. I tried not to cry because I didn’t want to embarrass myself, but…”
I filled in the gap. “…But you did. I remember now. You weren’t that heavy.” She laughed. I noticed a slight slur to her speech. Not yet as drunk as I am, but well on her way. “And then! On the day that we practiced CPR, you had to put your hands on me and blow into my mouth.”
I assured her I remembered that part. “You apologized to me. It was gutting, I’d never heard anything that dismal from another human being until then. You told me you were sorry that I had to touch you. That you knew what it must be like for me, but you didn’t.”
She was definitely weepy now. It tinged her speech as she answered. “But do you remember what you said back to me? That I should never apologize to anybody for my own body. That I needed it to live inside of, and that for all I knew you were a creep who was enjoying it. Then you started to mimic heavy breathing, and howled like a wolf.”
Despite everything, I smiled. Too much feeling. Too much, at a time like this. “You don’t know what that meant to me back then” she insisted. “That’s such a delicate time for a girl. I was so sure nobody could ever see me as anything other than a beast.”
I told her that she was only ever like ten pounds above average. “For fuck’s sake, you looked fine. Such a little thing, to get so worked up over.” She told me I clearly didn’t understand the hearts of women, and I agreed that was probably true. We both laughed at that, through the tears.
“Was there anybody that…I mean, is there anybody? Did you meet someone since then?” I asked why she was asking. “It’s nothing…well, no it’s not. I mean, I had ulterior motives when I called you. A stupid fantasy, really. I thought maybe you’d be single and looking for someone.
I thought, you know. Maybe we could go get dinner. Not some big thing, just to tell more funny stories from camp. That kinda stuff.” A sharp pain pressed on my heart. “Listen, it’s…not that I don’t want to.” I could practically hear her deflate through the phone.
“No! No it’s alright, I totally understand. I mean, I actually…I lost weight, you know. That was just my ugly duckling phase, ever since then-” I cut her off, assuring that wasn’t it, the pain in my chest only growing more severe the more she spoke.
But try as I might, I could imagine nothing to say which would not sound like an excuse to her. Which her fragile heart would not eagerly mistake for rejection, a feeling I know all too well. There was simply no alternative but to tell her everything.
So I poured my guts out for her. Turned myself inside out, like how a starfish eats. I told her about my selection letter. About all the preparation up until today, about the guests waiting outside. I told her about Angie.
“Oh. Of course there was someone else. I’m so foolish. I’m sorry I-” Again, I shut her down. “No more of that from you. If I have to tell you again, all these years later, I’ll do it. You are gorgeous, inside and out.
You are a staggeringly perfect emanation of nature, a piece of the Earth which has come to life that we might cherish it. Looking at you was like looking at the gently smiling face of a starry sky. I was so young and so put on the spot by what you said, nobody had ever put their heart into my hands like that.
I could react no other way to it, because I recognized those exact feelings of fragility and self loathing in you that I felt in myself…more often than I care to recount. That was the first time I made such a powerful and instantaneous human connection with anybody.
Your beautiful, delicate humanity shone through and I could do nothing but cradle it close to me. Nurture it like a wounded bird, the way other people in your life should have before me. I wish there was some other way out of this. I would love to go to dinner with you.”
She broke up on the other end, all I could hear was drunken blubbering. “I also called…because I got my exit letter yesterday.” Oh. Of course. I slumped against the door and let myself blubber too, now that the full picture had suddenly come into focus. No use fighting it back at this point, may as well feel all of it.
Stars. The beach. Dogs, trees, concerts. Summer sunshine. The sound of Angie’s laughter. No, no more Angie right now. I have to belong to Kaitlyn right now, at least until the call’s over. “I wanted…you know, don’t you?” her voice was so soft now, almost whispering. “I wanted that dinner to be one of the last things…before…”
The stabbing sensation in my chest was unbearable now. There was just nothing to say that would make it any better. “It’s not as scary as I’m imagining, is it?” she asked, voice trembling. “I mean, you sound scared to me. You sound really messed up. Is that what it’s like?
I have never been terribly good at bluster. But I’ve also never been so powerfully motivated until now. “There’s a lot of hand wringing at first. A lot of agonizing, but it feels silly in retrospect” I lied through my teeth, recalling just then something I heard recently on the radio. “Really, we make it out to be so much more than it is. What does it amount to? Just a little poppity pop, then it’s all over.”
It was the last thing I could do for her. To posture and thump my chest, so that she wouldn’t be afraid. She’d find out it was all a sham when her turn arrived, but she might at least sleep soundly every night until then.
“Maybe you’re right. All worked up over something so little, when it comes right down to it. When I hear you say it like that, I believe it.” I steeled myself as hard as I could in order to maintain composure. It was unexpectedly grueling.
“What’s that in the background” she asked. “It sounds like helicopters. It’s…it’s not, is it?” This time I answered honestly. “Geez. You’d better get going. Thank you for everything though. I was so scared about calling you, but now I’m glad I did.”
She lingered, as did I, each of us listening to the other’s breath. “I hate saying goodbye.” I told her to just hang up, because there’s nothing that will make it easier. So she did. I finished putting my clothes on, occasionally glancing at myself in the mirror. Imagining how I’d look lying down with my arms crossed, eyes closed.
“Hang on. No, not there. The outlet is behind the bookcase. No, on the left. Not that left! My left, not your left! For God’s sake. Here, let me do it.” Dad’s voice. When I emerged from the bathroom, body still steaming, he knelt in the hallway with a circular saw, plugging it into the wall.
Near as I can figure he was fixing to break the door down, if it came to that. It was either going to be him, or the men in those helicopters. I guess I’d rather he do it, all things considered. He stared at me, blinking in disbelief. Shielding his eyes, in the darkness of the corridor, against the light from the bathroom door which framed my silhouette.
“There will be no need for that.” He stood up, brushed himself off and demanded to know what I’d been doing in there for so long. “I wanted to be warm. And clean, I guess. I dunno.” He shouted and gesticulated like he always does when he’s this mad, but I just waited him out. It’s not like he’s going to kill me or anything.
Everybody was still in the livingroom where I left them, chatting nervously to one another about the helicopters and tapping away at their phones. They all balked at me when I entered the room. Despite being surrounded by all of these people, all of them important to me in their own way…as the curtains finally begin to fall, and everything draws to a close…I have never felt so completely alone.
“Are you…ready now? Are you going to do it?” I didn’t bother answering, except to ask where the gun was. “You’re okay though, right? What happened in there?” I smoothed my shirt, then tried to do something acceptable with my hair so I’d look alright for Dad’s camera. “Somebody just give me the gun, please.”
Nothing left that I want to say, and only one thing left to do. As I kneel on this cushion, I find myself grasping inwardly for anything I can use to fight back the fear this time. Thoughts of Angie. I remember every tiny detail of that Summer we spent together. Thoughts of Kaitlyn. The future we might have shared, in a different world.
It gave me the strength I hoped it would. The strength I was missing before. All at once, now. No hesitation this time, all at once. Just one last, big push. Got to keep those memories running through my head as I tilt it gently back towards the canvas, slide the barrel of the gun into my mouth, and squeeze the trig
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