Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

  I say, “I was wondering, hypothetically speaking, if you’d go out with me this weekend.”

  She either pretends to think about this or actually thinks about this.

  “Take your time. You’ve got approximately two more minutes to respond.”

  “Until the offer expires?”

  “Until I ask you again.”

  She gives me a smile that’s all slinky and seductive. In this low voice, she goes, “I think, hypothetically, it sounds like fun.”

  Jack is five minutes early. His hair is as wildly gigantic as usual, but damp, as if he just stepped out of the shower, and I’m sitting next to him on the couch, and he smells like soap and so much man. I try not to stare at his hands, resting on his knees, at the way his skin looks even more gold against the dark blue of his jeans.

  I’ve warned my dad that Jack is coming. That Jack is my friend. That Jack is taking me out for MY FIRST DATE EVER. Yes, the same Jack you met in the principal’s office.

  I hold my breath as we sit, the three of us (four, counting George, blinking at Jack from the back of my dad’s chair), in an awkward triangle of So Many Things Not Being Said. My dad and Jack are making chitchat, and Jack does most of the talking. My dad watches him like he’s trying to uncover his true intentions. He isn’t necessarily being warm and friendly, but he’s not being rude either, which is something to be grateful for.

  But then Will Strout goes, “You can imagine how surprised I was when Libby told me she wanted to go out with you.”

  “I can.”

  “I know my daughter’s amazing, but the question is if you do.”

  “I’m learning that.”

  “She seems to trust you, and she wants me to trust you too.”

  “I understand why you wouldn’t. All I can do is try to prove myself to both of you, sir.”

  “Can you give me three good reasons I should let her leave the house with you tonight?”

  “I acted like an asshole, but I’m not an asshole. I never meant to hurt your daughter. I would never purposely hurt your daughter.”

  Dad looks at me, and I try to give him a look that says Please forgive him and let me go so that I don’t die an old maid, and besides I really like him, even if you think it sounds crazy, and please, please trust me.

  He says to Jack, “So where are you planning on taking my daughter this evening?” He keeps saying my daughter like he’s trying to drive the point home. THIS IS MY CHILD, MY FLESH AND BLOOD. DO YOU KNOW HOW DEAD YOU WILL BE IF YOU DO ANYTHING TO MESS WITH MY ONLY KID?!

  “I thought we’d see a movie and get something to eat.”

  “You’ll bring her home by eleven o’clock.”

  Me: “I’m a junior in high school.”

  Dad: “Yes, you are.”

  Me: “How about midnight?”

  Dad: “How about ten thirty?”

  Me (to Jack): “I need to be home by eleven.”

  Jack (laughing): “Not a problem. I promise to get her home by then, if not before.”

  Not too much before, I think.

  My dad says to him, “When was the last time you had your car serviced?”

  And now I can’t tell if he’s just messing with Jack or if he’s being serious. I try to send him a telepathic message: Please stop this. Please lighten up. There’s a good chance he’s going to destroy my chances here before I can, and maybe Jack isn’t my last opportunity to have a male nonrelation love me, but he’s certainly my best opportunity right now, and besides, I actually like him.

  I like Jack Masselin.

  “August. I’m actually pretty handy, so I did it myself.”

  Dad studies him for what seems like the rest of my life. “You know, your father and I went to school together. We played on the football team in middle school and in high school.”

  And it’s not exactly I’m so thrilled you’re taking my daughter out, but it’s something.


  In the car I say, “I’m sorry about my dad.”

  “Are you kidding? He has every reason to kick my ass. If I was him, I’d never let me near you.”

  But all I hear is I just want to be near you, Libby Strout. I want to kiss your lips right off your face.

  Jack says, “He’s just protective, and he should be, especially after what I did to you. That’s how I’d be if I ever had a daughter.”

  But what I hear is I will always be protective of you. I will always look after you and our daughter, the one we’re going to have together after we get married and I am loving you forever.

  I’m in the same car, only fifteen years in the future—somewhere far away from Amos. Jack Masselin is next to me like he is now, only our kids are in the backseat, or maybe just one kid—the daughter—my hand on his leg. I stare at his leg and then at his hands on the wheel. I bet you’ll be a wonderful father.

  I’m not sure where we’re going, but we’re headed to the east side of town, where the restaurants and the movie theater are. This is where my dad and I lived until they had to destroy our house to get me out.

  As if he can read my mind, Jack says, “Didn’t you use to live on this side of town?”

  “Once upon a time. So where are we going?”

  He grins at me, and I melt into the seat. My insides have gone warm and soft, and I lean into this feeling because it’s not something I have all the time. It’s okay to be happy, I hear Rachel say. It’s okay to let yourself enjoy the good times.

  Tonight could be the night. My Pauline Potter work-off-the-weight sex night. Jack Masselin, you just might be my first.

  He says, “I was thinking we’d get something to eat and take it from there.” But he might as well say I’m taking you to the moon and back, and while we’re up there, I’m going to collect the stars for you so that you can keep them.

  And suddenly I’m thinking about the daughter we’re destined to have. Beatrice, I think. We’ll name her Beatrice.


  We drive past Olive Garden, Applebee’s, and the Red Lobster that opened last month. I’m mentally ticking through all the restaurants in town—there aren’t many—but we pass one after the other. I half expect him to just circle around and take me home, no food, no date. Or maybe drive across the Ohio line where no one will recognize him or me or us.

  But then we’re leaving Amos, and my heart deflates a little, which tells me I didn’t actually expect him to do this, and now he’s doing it—smuggling me over city lines like the daughter of some wealthy oil baron.

  “Where are we going?” My voice sounds flat, as if it’s underridden a semi about fifty times.



  “Yes, Richmond. There’s no way I’m taking you to one of the usual dumps in town. Not looking like that.”

  Clara’s Pizza King is an institution. It’s the best pizza for miles, and there’s a red double-decker bus parked in the dining room. The place is crowded, but I’ve called ahead. We can sit in the bus or at a corner table upstairs that has a porch swing on one side. Libby chooses the porch swing.

  We move through the tables, Libby in front of me, and I see people staring at her. This happens when I’m with Caroline—people look at her. But they look at Caroline because she’s the kind of tall, sexy girl you look at.

  As we walk, I can see where the path is too tight, where Libby will have to squeeze through. I offer to go first because that way I can choose which way to go so she doesn’t have to worry about it. I’m clearing the way, and people are gawking, and it hits me that up until recently, I was one of them. Maybe not the snickering ones, but the ones sitting next to them. I don’t know what to feel or do, so I stare back. Do I know them or not know them? I don’t even care. They’re watching her and me, and this table of boys starts saying shit. Does she hear them? I can’t tell. Probably. I throw my head back—a move I like to think ma
kes my hair instantly grow twenty times bigger, and me ten feet taller—and I give them the eye. They get quiet.

  Upstairs, Libby takes a seat on the swing, and now I can sit on the other side of the table or I can sit next to her. I think, Fuck ’em all, these people who are staring. I say, “Is that space taken?” I nod down at the swing.

  “You don’t have to.”


  “Sit by me.”

  “Move it, sister.”

  She shoves over, and we rock back and forth, like we’re kicking back on our front porch on a summer afternoon. Each table has an actual phone—the old-fashioned kind with a cord—and after I call in our order, I take her hand.

  I say, “My palms are sweaty.”


  “I’m nervous.”


  “Because I’m sitting next to you on this swing and you’re beautiful.”

  She hesitates, like she’s not sure whether to take the compliment. But then she says, “Thank you.”

  Being out in the world with her is different from being alone with her. For one, there are too many other people. For two, I’m on guard, ready to take on anyone who tries to get it started with her or me. For three, it’s making me think about her weight in a way I haven’t really, truly thought about until right this moment.

  We’re sitting there in silence, so I decide to tell her about Dr. Amber Klein and the tests and everything I haven’t told her about my time as Jack Masselin, Lab Rat. Libby’s not saying anything, but I can tell she’s listening. Her head is cocked to one side, and I can see her eyes taking it all in.

  Finally she goes, “How do you feel?”

  “The same. Maybe a little worse. Maybe a little better.”

  “Are you going to tell your parents?”

  “I don’t think so. What’s the point, right? I mean, there’s nothing any of us can do, short of downloading facial recognition software directly into this brain of mine. Telling them won’t magically create a cure. It’ll just give them more shit to worry about.”

  “I’m sorry. I wanted there to be something they could do for you. Not because your brain isn’t awesome the way it is, but because it would make you feel better.”

  Now it’s my turn to not say anything. I sit looking at her until it’s just us, Libby and me, no one else for miles. What I want to do more than anything is kiss her. I almost do, but then the waitress is standing there with our food.

  As we eat, Libby is glancing around, and finally she looks at me and goes, “Richmond, huh?” And there’s something in her tone that makes me set down my drink.

  “I thought you’d like Clara’s.”

  “I do like Clara’s. It’s just that I would have been okay, you know, going somewhere in Amos.” And then she stares off toward the bus.

  I say, “Listen, I may be keeping the face blindness a secret for now, but that doesn’t mean I want everything in my life to be a secret. It doesn’t mean I want to keep you a secret. I would never hide you away, if that’s what you’re thinking.” As I say it, I ask myself, Is that what I’m doing?

  She starts blinking at the table, at the menu, anywhere else but at me.

  “Holy shit. That’s what you were thinking. That I brought you out here so we wouldn’t run into anyone.”


  “Good, because that would be crazy.”

  So why did you bring her here, asshole?

  “I mean yes.”

  “Uh, because that wouldn’t be crazy at all.” Now her eyes find mine. “Okay,” I say. “I get it. I’m king douchelord and you trust me but you don’t. You don’t know me well enough to know how deep the douchery goes.”

  The whole while I’m asking myself, How deep does the douchery go? What if it goes deeper than you think?

  She says, “Maybe not.” And I hate the careful, closed-off tone because it’s like a fence between us.

  “Listen. I brought you here because you’re better than some shitty Amos chain restaurant. I brought you here because when I was six, I fell off the roof of our house, and my dad smuggled a Clara’s pizza into the hospital, and those kinds of memories are pretty rare for me right now—the ones where my dad is this really great guy. I brought you here because this is the first place I wanted to go after I got out of the hospital and was well enough to sit up straight. I brought you here because it’s one of the few places in a sixty-mile radius, if not the entire state of Indiana, that isn’t boring or typical. Because you’re not boring or typical.”

  And I realize every word is true.

  I reach over the fence and take her hand. I kiss the knuckles, one by one. As I do I’m thinking, How does this girl mean so much to me?

  “Libby Strout, you deserve to be seen.”

  “People can’t help but see me.” She says this to the tablecloth.

  “That’s not what I mean.”

  We sit there swinging, and now I’m kicking myself for bringing her here. I should have just gone to Red Lobster where we could have been stared at by everyone at school, including maybe Caroline, and where my idiot friends could have come over and hijacked our date with their stupidity.

  I say, “Wait here,” and then I’m up and out of the swing, down the stairs, and over to the jukebox, which hugs the wall behind the bus. This is the same jukebox my parents used to play when they were coming here on dates about sixty years ago. As I’m flipping through the musical choices, I’m thinking about how Libby Strout makes me want to drive thirty miles to the closest place that is almost good enough for her and run through crowded restaurants to find her the perfect song.

  And then I see it. The Jackson 5. I choose the song I was looking for and also a couple of others—Sly and the Family Stone, Earth, Wind & Fire—so we can have a whole block of them. Then I go back to the table, which is the table in the upper northwest corner, the one with the girl in the purple dress.

  She says, “You didn’t have to do that. You don’t have to do anything. I’m being dumb.”

  “You could never be dumb.”

  “I can be dumb.”

  She takes a bite of pizza. I take a bite of pizza. We eat in this weird silence.

  And then suddenly the song is playing, as in the song. I wipe my mouth with the napkin and toss it aside. I’m on my feet, hand out.

  Libby blinks up at me. “What?”

  “Come on.”


  “Just come on.”

  And I lead her down the stairs to the center of Clara’s, right to the one open spot, at the front of the restaurant, near the entrance to the dining room. Then I spin her into my arms, and we’re dancing. Oh so slowly. “I’ll Be There” is the obvious choice, but the one I chose is “Ben.” If ever a song was written for Libby and me, it’s this one. Two broken, lonely people who maybe aren’t so broken or lonely anymore.

  At first I’m aware of every eye in the room on us, but then all the faces fade away, and it’s just Libby and me, my hands on her waist, all that woman in my arms. We’re in perfect sync, moving together, making it up as we go.

  I can feel the tears burning against the backs of my eyes. Every line is me, Libby Strout. It’s us, but mostly me. And also Jack. God.

  I could cry in the arms of Jack Masselin as an entire restaurant of strangers watches, or I could push the tears back and down until they’re buried. I push them. And push them. I won’t let them out. At some point, he leans in and, just like that, without a word, kisses my face, first one cheek and then the other. He kisses me where the tears would be if I’d let them fall, and it’s the single loveliest thing anyone has ever done who wasn’t my mom. Suddenly I’m filled with this safe, warm feeling that I haven’t felt in a really long time. It’s the feeling of everything is going to be okay. You are going to be okay. You may already be okay. Let’s us be okay together, just you and me.

  I suck in my breath and don’t breathe again until the song is over. The jukebox goes jumping right into the next t
rack, which is a fast one, thank goodness, and that’s when Jack breaks out the moves.

  He says, “Get a load of this, girl. If you can handle it.”

  And he is grooving all over the place.

  “Handle this!” And I’m dancing too, till we’re dancing like lunatics, and I don’t feel like crying anymore ever again.

  He goes, “Do the Exploding Hair!”

  And he shakes his head to the left, to the right, to the middle. He has an unfair advantage because his hair is so much bigger, but I do my best to shake my hair all around.

  I go, “Do the Lightning Strike!” And I jump and shake, jump and shake like I’m being electrified. He starts jumping and shaking too, and at some point, I look around and a handful of other people are on their feet and dancing at their tables.

  Jack says, “It’s a dance revolution!”

  He takes my hand and twirls me round and round so that I’m spinning like a top and laughing. I think what an amazing world this would be if we all danced everywhere we went.


  He walks me to the front door of my house, and when we get there I wait for him to kiss me good night, but instead he hugs me. This isn’t a Fat Girl Rodeo hug. It’s warm and enveloping in a good way, and I can smell the soap and outdoors on him, like he rolled in fresh grass. I want him to hold me forever, but then he pulls away and gazes down at me with half-closed eyes. “Good night, Libby.”

  And I say, “Good night, Jack.” And I go inside and my dad is there, and I tell him about the dinner and then I go to my room and close the door and sit on the bed and think, Why the hell didn’t he want to kiss me?

  My phone buzzes. Best date ever.

  Followed by: I can’t wait to do it again.

  Followed by: This chick Mary Katherine really reminds you of us? From what I can tell, she’s pretty much bats in the belfry.

  I write: Yes, but in a kind of lovable way. She’s got this big secret, and no one understands her. Does that help you make the connection?

  He writes back: Oh I didn’t say I don’t see the connection, but tell me you don’t think we’re that crazy.

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