Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  “No,” I say again. “It was my idea to go.”

  I almost say, I’m thinking about getting tested too. I know we talked about it after Mom died, but now that I’m older I think I might want to. Maybe that way I won’t worry as much. I throw myself a grape and miss my mouth. Or maybe I’ll worry more, depending on what I find out. I pick the grape off my shirt, and then frown at the shirt. “Do you think we could go shopping?”

  He raises an eyebrow. “For your non-date?”

  “You wouldn’t actually have to go. You could just let me borrow money. Or I could get a job.”

  “No jobs. Not right now. One thing at a time.”

  “So can I borrow some money, then?”

  “You realize you’ve just asked me if you can skip school and borrow money in the same conversation? You realize I’m the world’s best dad?”

  “I do.”

  He tilts his head back and I throw him a grape. I throw George a grape and he smacks it across the room. I throw myself a grape and this time I catch it like a pro.

  —

  In my room, I pick up my phone and settle back against the headboard. I call Bailey because this is what real friends who aren’t imaginary do. When she answers, I say, “What do you think of Jack Masselin?”

  “As a person or as a guy?”

  “Both.”

  “I think he’s basically a good person who sometimes lacks judgment. As a guy, I think he’s cute and funny, and he knows it, but he’s not as jerky as a lot of them. Why?”

  “Oh, I’m just wondering.”

  “I’m not telling you how to feel, Libbs, but he and Caroline are one of those forever couples. I mean, even when they’re not together, they’re together, and if it was me, I wouldn’t want to go near him. You’d just set yourself up for heartbreak.”

  “I’m not saying I’m interested.”

  But am I?

  I change the subject to Terri Collins and the Damsels, and Bailey tells me about this boy she likes who lives in New Castle. We talk for a while, and afterward I go on Iris’s Instagram account, where I like every single one of her most recent posts. I choose one randomly and comment on it, and I almost leave it at that. But then I decide to call her. I go straight to voice mail and leave a rambling apology. She calls me back immediately, and even though I don’t want to, I answer because I am not an island.

  At home, I find Mom-with-Hair-Up in her study, deep in work, law books open, laptop humming. I rap on the door. “Oldest son, reporting for duty.”

  She gives me a Mom look. “Did you manage to make it through the day without assaulting anyone or having to see the principal?”

  “Yes, I did.” I raise my arms in a triumphant V, like I just crossed a finish line.

  “Well done. Let’s see if we can have more days like this.” She holds up one hand, fingers crossed, while the other hand marks her place in one of the books. “By the way, a package came for you. I left it on the island in the kitchen. What did you order?”

  “Just stuff for school.” I’m hoping she’ll take this as evidence that I’m a new and improved Jack, lesson learned.

  Her phone rings, and she shakes her head. “Go ahead and get pizza or something for dinner, unless your dad can throw something together.”

  “I don’t think he’s home yet.”

  Her face goes blank, and before she can say anything and because she works hard and he’s a louse, and because she doesn’t deserve to feel bad about anything, I jog around the desk and kiss her on the cheek. “You’re welcome to all this swag, Mom. I’ve got so much to spare. Here’s a little more to help you with your case.” And I hug her. It’s not much, but it makes her laugh, even as she’s pushing me away.

  —

  I open the box in my room. Two titles by Oliver Sacks, a textbookish volume on visual perception called Face and Mind, and a biography of prosopagnosic painter Chuck Close, who’s made a name for himself painting faces and is a total badass. He’s in a wheelchair, with a messed-up hand, and he’s face-blind, but he creates these paintings that are really damn awesome. This is how he does it:

  He photographs the face.

  He maps the face by making a photographic grid of it.

  He then builds the face piece by piece on canvas, using oils, acrylics, ink, graphite, or colored pencils.

  According to him, it’s always about the face.

  Only about the face.

  Because the face is a road map of life.

  I text Jayvee. Our conversation begins, as always, with Atticus Finch.

  Me: Let’s say Atticus Finch is your father.

  Jayvee: Am I Scout or Jem?

  Me: Either. Or Jayvee. Jayvee Finch.

  Jayvee: Of the Filipino Finches. Continue.

  Me: Let’s say there’s an illness that runs in the family, and when you were little, Atticus decided you shouldn’t be tested for it.

  Jayvee: Atticus is usually right. Is there a cure?

  Me: Not really.

  Jayvee: Am I questioning Atticus now that I’m all grown up and womanly?

  Me: Maybe.

  Jayvee: How old am I now?

  Me: Our age.

  Jayvee: I’d assume old Atticus had his reasons. He’s Atticus Finch, after all.

  Five seconds later:

  Jayvee: But there’s something to be said for making your own decisions.

  How to Build a Robot

  by Jack Masselin

  1. Collect as many Lego pieces and other materials as possible.

  2. Draw up schematic of design.

  3. Ignore “how to build a Lego robot” websites because this is for Dusty and he deserves something original that has never been created before.

  4. Rewatch The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original, not the remake) for procrastination-designed-as-inspiration-gathering purposes.

  5. Take everything you can find of any value from the scrap yard.

  6. Order missing parts (if impossible to find at scrap yard)—microcontroller, breadboard, circuit board, battery, jumper wires, gear motors, power jack, speaker, infrared receiver, rotation servos, various brackets and hardware, motorized scroll saw, etc.

  7. Create sketches that will tell the robot what to do. Basically, program its brain.

  When I was six, I climbed up on the roof of the house, trying to be a superhero. I was Iron Man in my Iron Man suit, only in reality I was wearing a T-shirt and a pair of swim trunks, which meant that instead of flying I dove headfirst into the earth and cracked my skull open. Sixty-seven stitches. Did I recognize people before that? I can’t remember.

  8. Give it a good brain. A complete, fully functioning, normal, regular brain.

  ONE WEEK LATER

  October first is a Tuesday. I play sick and hide the keys to the Land Rover so Marcus can’t take it to school. When a tall boy with shaggy hair comes into my room and starts yelling at me, I figure it’s him. “I know you’ve got the keys, you faker.”

  I cough loudly.

  He starts digging through my shit—bookshelves, drawers, closet. He’s picking my jeans up off the floor and searching the pockets.

  I hack away like I’ve got tuberculosis until a woman appears at the door and wants to know what in the Great Fanny Adams is going on.

  In answer, I cough myself ragged, which makes her point to the door and tell the tall/shaggy boy to get the hell downstairs. NOW. The woman says, “Do you need anything before we go?”

  “I’ll be okay.” I don’t actually mean to, but I sound like a martyr. I cough a little more.

  And then she’s gone, and I lie still, listening to the leaving sounds that are happening downstairs.

  I hear the front door slam, and I lie there another minute. I hear a car engine kick in, and then I’m up and at the window, counting the bodies down below. The woman climbs into one car with this little kid, and a man with thick dark hair gets in another car with the tall/shaggy boy. I watch them pull away and turn in opposite directions at the end of the b
lock, first one and then the other. Like that, I fly into motion. I’m grabbing the keys from beneath the mattress, pulling on clothes, running down the stairs, shoving a bagel in my mouth, jumping in the Land Rover, and heading across town to Libby’s.

  —

  Libby’s neighborhood is street after street of these new houses that look identical, one after the other. There’s nothing to distinguish her house from the rest of them except for the girl who lives there. She’s waiting for me on the curb, wearing this purple dress, and it reminds me of something an actual woman would wear, tucked here, loose there, fitted there. Her hair is down and lit up by the sun.

  I can see beauty. The more symmetrical the face, the more average the person looks to me because there’s this sameness to them, even if other people think they’re hot. A person has to have something unique about them. Libby’s face is symmetrical, but her beauty has nothing to do with sameness. I recognize it as she swings the door open and climbs into the car. She’s graceful, especially for someone so large. She kind of swoops in like Tarzan, kicks off her shoes, and wiggles her toes. Her toenails are purple too.

  I say, “You look great.”

  She cocks her head at me. “Are you flirting with me, Jack Masselin?”

  “I’m just stating the obvious.”

  She pulls her hair off her neck, and I want to say Don’t do that. You’ll disappear before my eyes. But then you can tell she rethinks it—maybe she remembers that I’ve told her this before—and lets it fall back around her shoulders.

  Then she hands me something wrapped in Christmas paper and about fifty bows. “Happy birthday. If you can’t tell, I like Christmas paper best.”

  “You didn’t have to do anything.”

  “I wanted to. Open it.”

  I tear off the wrapping and the bows go flying. She picks one up and sticks it to her hair, right over her left ear. She picks up another and sticks it to the knee of my jeans. I pick one up and stick it to the end of my nose and then stick one on the end of her nose.

  She says from behind the bow, “Open, please.”

  It’s a book. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. At first, I’m thrown. I wonder if she knows. She must know I was the one who sent this to her at the hospital. I look at her, but she’s got this wide, open smile on her face, and I can see that no, she doesn’t know.

  I flip through the book. It’s not the same copy I sent her years ago, but it’s still well worn and well read.

  “I wasn’t sure what to get you because what do you get the boy who has everything, including face blindness? So I thought I’d get you something I love. It’s my favorite book. You don’t have to read it, but the girl, Mary Katherine—Merricat, they call her—she reminds me of, uh, me, I guess. And…I don’t know. I thought you might relate to her too.”

  “I’ll read it.” I smile at her. “Thank you.”

  She smiles at me. “You’re welcome.”

  And we’re having what feels like a moment. Suddenly, the air isn’t just filled with bows; it’s filled with some sort of electric current that links her seat to mine.

  She does the impossible—slices through the current by speaking first. “So are you ready for this?”

  “As I’ll ever be.”

  —

  At first I’m amped. I talk her ear off, telling her about every online test I’ve taken and this guy with prosopagnosia named Bill Choisser who lives in San Francisco and is an old bearded dude who wrote a book about face blindness, which he’s posted on the Internet for all to read. All about the impact being face-blind has on school, work, relationships, life.

  But the closer we get to Bloomington, the quieter I get. I can feel the air going out of me. What am I going to find out? Will Dr. Amber Klein be able to help me? Should I be going to New Hampshire instead to see Brad Duchaine? What if this whole trip is a waste of time? What if they tell me I’ve got some serious illness? What if I find out it isn’t face blindness, but cancer of the brain?

  “I can almost feel you thinking right now.”

  I look at her.

  “Did you forget I was in the car with you?”

  I’m so deep in the forest of my mind that yeah, I almost did.

  “Sorry.”

  We pass a sign: BLOOMINGTON…10 MILES. I feel my stomach drop and land somewhere around the gas pedal.

  “Does this thing have a radio?”

  “Does it have a radio. What do you think, woman? Christ almighty.” I hit a button and music fills the Land Rover, taking up all the space around us. I try to concentrate on the words, on the melody, but then she starts searching through songs, and this feels like my brain—fragments of words, fragments of melodies, fragments of moments, fragments of things.

  Finally, she finds a song she likes, and then she cranks it.

  “Disco? Are you fucking kidding me?” I reach for the radio, but she smacks my hand away. I reach around her hand, and she smacks it again, and then it’s not about turning off the music, it’s about touching her, and our hands are flirting. Finally, she grabs my fingers and holds on to them. And that electric current is sparking out of my thumb, my pinky, and the fingers in between. I cough because What the fuck is happening? I say to the car, “I’m so sorry this had to happen to you, baby. I’m sorry you ever had to hear this. I’m sorry I ever had to hear this. I’m sorry I’m still hearing it.”

  Libby hollers, “What? I can’t hear you over my own singing and this amazing beat!”

  Now she’s singing as loud as she can AND dancing. She lets go of my hand and yells, “Spontaneous dance party!” and goes on singing, but now she’s dancing bigger and broader, like she’s onstage somewhere.

  “I love to love, but my baby just loves to dance, he wants to dance, he loves to dance, he’s got to dance.”

  “What the f—?”

  “The minute the band begins to swing it, he’s on his feet to dig it, and dance the night away. Stop! I’m spinning like a top, we’ll dance until we drop…”

  It’s pretty much the corniest song I’ve ever heard, but Libby is into it. She’s grooving all over the seat, shaking her shoulders, shimmying toward me and away. She winks at me and belts it out louder, and she’s a terrible singer. So I start singing along with her, kind of self-defensively.

  And then we’re dancing in unison—heads bobbing to the right, to the left, shoulders forward, shoulders back. Now we’re yelling the words, and I’m pounding on the steering wheel, and she’s got her arms in the air, and it’s the best song I’ve ever heard, and now I’m smiling at her.

  And she’s smiling at me.

  And it’s a moment.

  A definite moment.

  She says, “Watch the road, Casanova.” But she says it in this soft voice that I’ve never heard her use before. “Just remember, whatever we learn today, these tests don’t change anything.”

  I like the way she says we, as if she’s in this with me.

  “You’re still Jack Masselin. You’re still a pain in the ass. You’re still you.”

  I am having a moment with Jack Masselin. If you’d asked me a couple of weeks ago or even two days ago if I could imagine such a thing, I would have laughed until I laughed the breath right out of me. This is the thing about life outside the house, though: you never know what might happen.

  I think he feels it too, but I’m not sure.

  He’d better feel it too.

  It had better not just be me over here, by myself, on my own, having a moment over him as opposed to with him.

  I act like La la la, no big deal, let’s go to Bloomington, let’s see if you’re really face-blind. But inside my chest, my heart is clenching and unclenching and skipping beats and fluttering like it’s about to burst its way out of there and fly around this car. I fix a smile on my face and stare out the window and think, Oh, heart, you traitor.

  The lab is busy. An assistant leads us to Dr. Amber Klein (light brown hair, sharp cheekbones, glasses). She is dressed all in bla
ck, her sleeves rolled over her elbows, and her hair swept up in a kind of no-nonsense way. She’s probably around forty. The lab is also black, floors, walls, ceiling. The room is divided into cubicles by curtains—black, of course—and it feels like we’ve wandered onto the set of a music video. Libby wears purple and I’m in green, and we stand out like beacons.

  Dr. Klein offers us chairs behind one of the black curtains, so it’s as if we’re enclosed in a small room. She boots up her laptop and says, “I understand you need to be home by late afternoon?” She’s wearing an actual watch, and she checks it now: 9:54 a.m.

  “There’s a bit of a curfew situation.” I smile at Libby and she smiles at me. She’s still wearing the bow over her left ear, but her smile reminds me of the one my mom wore during Dad’s chemo appointments. Like she’s determined to make the most of things for the sake of him/me, when she knows how hopeless it really is.

  “I’m going to run you through a series of tests.” Dr. Klein sits down and starts clicking away at the keyboard.

  Libby says to me, “I’m actually going to wait outside. I saw a Starbucks nearby. Just text me when you’re done.” She takes my phone and types her number in. When she hands it back, I feel this weird panic.

  She hesitates over my shoulder. “Unless…I mean, I can stay…” But I can tell that she doesn’t want to stay, and I wonder if maybe it’s the whole doctor/brain setting that’s bugging her.

  “Nah, I’m good.”

  I watch her go, hair swinging.

  Dr. Klein says, “Does anyone in your family have prosopagnosia?”

  “I’m not sure. Why?”

  “Face blindness is often genetic, but there are three categories of prosopagnosia: acquired, developmental, and congenital. It can also be a symptom of other disorders, such as autism. Did you ever experience a fall or a childhood illness of the brain?”

  “I fell off the roof when I was six.”

  “Did you hit your head?”

 
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