Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  Me: I think we’re even crazier.

  Jack: I’ll buy that.

  A few minutes later, he writes: I can’t stop reading. This may be the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten, next to the soldering iron they gave me when I turned nine.

  Me: That’s what I like about you. So manly, yet so cerebral.

  Jack: Those are only two of the many, many things you like about me. And don’t get me started on what I like about you. I’ll never get this book read, and it’s my life’s mission to finish it tonight.

  He texts me off and on through the rest of the night, giving me a running commentary on what he’s reading. Eventually, I fall back into the pillows, a big, loopy smile on my face. He may not have kissed me after our date, but it’s almost definitely, undeniably, absolutely guaranteed that he will.

  Monday morning, a tall girl with dark skin and a painted-on beauty mark finds me at my locker.

  “Jack.”

  Caroline.

  “Yes?”

  Just in case it isn’t her but some other tall girl with dark skin and a painted-on beauty mark by one eye.

  “Did you have a good weekend?”

  “Thanks for asking. Yes, I did.”

  “You know what people are saying, don’t you?”

  And here it comes.

  “That I’m one badass dude?”

  “About that girl. That Libby Strout. And you. They’re saying you’re dating her. That she’s your new girlfriend. I was like, I know that can’t be true, but they’re like, no, it’s true. He took her to Clara’s.”

  “Who is ‘they’?”

  “It doesn’t matter.”

  I can hear the hurt in her voice, buried underneath all the venom. I want to say It’s okay to be a person. We’re all afraid. We all get hurt. It’s okay to hurt. You’d be so much more likable if you just acted human.

  “We’re not together anymore, Caroline, so, uh, not to be rude, but why do you care?”

  “I think it’s sweet that you want to be nice to her after what you did, but I’m just concerned about her. Girls like that, you can’t mess around with them, Jack.” She shakes her head. “You could end up breaking her heart.”

  “We haven’t defined anything yet, but if you’re asking me if I like hanging out with her? Absolutely. And do I think she’s one cool chick? Yes. Do I think she’s beautiful? Yeah, I do. I really do. I’m not messing around with her. I like her. Any other questions?”

  She stands there, perfectly composed, perfectly Caroline, and says, “You know, you think you’re all that, you pretend to be all that, but you’re not.”

  “I know I’m not. Which is all the more reason I’m grateful she likes me anyway.”

  —

  At home, I dig through the pile of clothes on my floor until I come up with the jeans I’m looking for. I pull the ball of wadded-up paper out of the back pocket. Top 10 Reasons to Date a Fat Girl.

  I make myself reread it. It’s like I need to prove to myself once and for all that she’s fat and I don’t care.

  Every word of the article makes me sick. How could I ever feel anything but lucky that this girl likes me?

  I go downstairs to the kitchen, walk directly to the stove, turn on one of the burners, and wave the paper over the gas flame till it catches fire. I hold the paper up and away from the stove and watch as the words burn away. And then I drop what’s left of the paper into the sink, where it burns itself into a pile of ashes. I turn on the faucet and wash the remains down the drain, and for good measure, flick the switch to the garbage disposal and let it grind.

  —

  Back in my room, I call Libby. When she answers, I say, “I finished the book.”

  “And?”

  “One, it was pretty damn terrifying. Two, Mary Katherine Blackwood was mad as a fucking hatter. Three, I see why you love it. Four, it might have reminded me of us just a little, although I’d like to argue that we’re slightly more sane. And five, I think it would be pretty fucking awesome to live in a castle with you.”

  In my nightstand, underneath my headphones, my lip balm, and an assortment of bookmarks, I pull out a letter written on Christmas stationery.

  These are for dancing alone onstage

  Or in your room

  Or anywhere your heart desires.

  They are for dancing in your dreams—

  dancing toward your future—

  dancing in love and creativity and joy—

  dancing because that is what you do.

  Because that’s who you are, no matter what,

  inside and outside.

  You just

  keep

  on

  dancing.

  The shoes that came with this letter are in my closet. They’re from the Christmas before my mom died. They will always be the last present I ever get from her, and I need to keep them safe forever, which is why I’ve never worn them.

  But right now I’m sitting down and pulling apart the tissue paper and taking the shoes out of their box and tying them on my feet. They are pink ballet toe shoes, and they are the loveliest thing I own. Even though she bought them too big, they’re too small for me now and hard to walk in, but I shuffle over to my laptop and turn on some music. I’m going old-school with the Spice Girls, a band my mom secretly loved. The song is “Who Do You Think You Are,” and it makes me think of my mom, of me, of where I might go one day, of what I might be.

  My Damsels audition is Saturday. I know my routine by heart. I could do it in my sleep. But right now I do my own made-up dance that’s kind of a ballet-hip-hop-electric-slide-shimmy-pop and I am amazing. I am the best dancer ever. I am a superstar. The shoes are magic. My feet are magic. I am magic.

  SATURDAY

  Marcus (tall, shaggy hair, pointy chin) stands over the kitchen sink, shoveling food into his face. I start to help myself to the coffee, and that’s when I hear, “I said no.”

  A woman walks in followed by a man wearing an official Masselin’s store shirt. His mouth is open in midsentence, but he closes it when he sees Marcus and me. By process of elimination, these are my parents.

  Mom says to me, “Put the coffee down now.” Then says to my dad, “We’ll talk about it later,” and it’s clear they’re in the middle of an argument. I reach for the largest mug we have and pour myself a cup of coffee.

  Mom asks Dad just what does he want her to do, and she sounds like she’s swallowing razor blades, like the guy at Sad Carnival, as we call it, the one out by Big Lots. I try not to eavesdrop, but I can feel my whole body go on alert, the way it always does when they argue.

  Dad says to my mom, “Tonight.”

  “Not tonight.”

  Marcus and I look at each other. He mouths, “What now?”

  Dad goes, “There’s slow surgery and there’s ripping off the Band-Aid, Sarah.”

  “I said not tonight.” She fixes her eyes on me, and she is not happy. “I need you to pick up Dusty after you’re done today.”

  “From where?”

  “From Tams’s house.” Picking up Dusty or Marcus or anyone is normally the last thing I ever agree to. Try not being able to recognize anyone and then having to go find them. But this morning I’m not about to argue with my mom.

  Even with half of the bleachers folded up, the new gym is an enormous place. You can barely see the ceiling from the floor, and the lights are blinding. From up above, I would look no larger than an ant.

  And all at once, that’s what I feel like—an ant.

  My palms are sweating. My heart is clenching, but not unclenching. I can’t catch my breath. I watch as it runs out of the gym as fast as it can, just like I want to do.

  WHY IN THE HELL DID I VOLUNTEER TO DO THIS?

  Heather Alpern and her three squad captains sit in chairs, legs crossed. The squad captains are all seniors, and they look identical, their hair slicked back into ponytails, faces shining. I find their sameness almost as terrifying as Ms. Alpern’s catlike beauty. Most terrifying o
f all is Caroline Lushamp, captain of the squad captains, who locks her eyes on me like a squid. A few other Damsel wannabes are sprinkled along the bottom row of the bleachers, waiting their turns to try out.

  Caroline says, “Are you ready?” in this super-friendly tone that is completely unnatural.

  I can barely hear her because I am trapped in my mind and body, shivering and afraid. I suddenly feel like I have face blindness because no one looks familiar or nice, and my eyes are flying all over the gym, searching for help. They land on Bailey, Jayvee, and Iris, at the very top of the bleachers. When they see me looking at them, they go blank, and maybe they can see my terror. Which means everyone else can probably see it too. I tell myself to move, to hide that terror and stuff it down and out of sight, and then Jayvee waves her arms and yells, “Shine on, you crazy diamond!”

  You volunteered to do this because the dance is in you. And then I think of something my mom used to say, about how as scary as it is to go after dreams, it’s even scarier not to.

  “Are you ready?” Caroline doesn’t sound as super-friendly this time.

  “Yes,” I say. And then I shout, “Yes!”

  For my audition song, I chose “Flashdance…What a Feeling” by Irene Cara, in honor of my mom, in honor of me. As I wait for the music to begin, I tell myself, Too many people in this world think small is the best they can do. Not you, Libby Strout. You weren’t born for small! You don’t know how to do small! Small is not in you!

  And then the song takes off and so do I.

  Shimmy shimmy kick kick. Shake boom boom.

  It takes me about twenty seconds to forget about the staring faces and all that shiny, pulled-back hair and which of the girls on the bleachers may or may not be a better dancer than I am and the fact that I’m twice as big as anyone in this room. After that first thirty seconds, I disappear into the song. I become one with the music, one with the dance.

  Kick. Bend. Twist. Flick flick. Shimmy. Shake shake shake. Boom. Kick kick. Pop. Twist. Bend. Flick. Shimmy. Shake. Kick. Boom boom boom.

  I’m carried away on the notes, across the gym, high up into the rafters, out the doors, and through the school, all the way to Principal Wasserman’s office, until I’m outside in the sun, under the sky.

  Twirl twirl twirl…

  And then I’m in the sky. And now I am the sky! I sail over Amos, across Interstate 70, over into Ohio, and from there to New York and the Atlantic, and then to England, to France…I’m everywhere. I’m global. I am universal.

  —

  I end, out of breath, suddenly back in the gym. The girls on the bleachers are standing up and whistling. They clap and stamp their feet, and my friends are the wildest of all. Over by the entrance to the court, I see Jack Masselin, paint-spattered and beaming like the sun. He’s slow-clapping, and then he taps his forehead in a salute before vanishing. He and the rest of my fellow delinquents are painting the bleachers today.

  Heather Alpern says, “Libby, that was wonderful.” And for the first time, I look directly at her.

  Caroline goes, “How tall are you?”

  And something in her loud, flat voice makes my stomach drop. The girls on the bleachers fall quiet and settle back into their seats.

  “I’m five six.”

  “How much do you weigh?”

  “One hundred twenty pounds.”

  Everyone stares.

  “I’m sorry, did you mean my physical weight or my spiritual weight?”

  The girls on the bleachers giggle. I am dripping, but I dab at my upper lip and the back of my neck as demurely as Queen Elizabeth.

  “The weight that determines what size costume you would need.”

  I say, “Is there a weight limit for this squad?”

  Caroline starts to speak, but Heather Alpern interrupts her. “Technically, there is not a limit. We don’t discriminate against size.” But they do. I can hear it in the careful way she’s picking her words and I can see it in the tight corners of her smile.

  “So why do you need to know my weight?”

  Caroline sighs. Loudly. Like I’m as dumb as a rock. “For costume size.” Then she smiles this slow movie-villain smile. “Would you be willing to lose weight if you were wanted?” The word echoes across the court. “You know. If you were to make the team?”

  Ms. Alpern shoots her a look. “Caroline.”

  I say, “How much weight are we talking about?”

  Caroline says, “A hundred pounds, probably more. Two hundred-fifty, maybe.” Which is ridiculous, because that would mean I’d weigh about the same as my aunt Tillie’s dog, Mango.

  Like that, I’m a kid again in ballet class, and Caroline is my teacher, frowning at me in this same exact way, a way that tells me I don’t belong here, even though I probably belong more than any of them because the dance is in me, and there’s a lot more of me than there is of them, which means there is a lot more dance in there.

  “Would you?”

  “Caroline, enough.”

  “You want to know if I’d be willing to lose two hundred pounds so that I can dance in formation and carry flags with you?” I’m hot with anger, which doesn’t help the dripping, but I make my voice quiet and controlled.

  “Yes.”

  I fix my eyes on Ms. Heather Alpern, because she’s supposed to be in charge here.

  “Absolutely not.”

  —

  I’m supposed to go back outside to the bleachers to serve my sentence and do my civic duty, but I can’t. Instead I call Rachel and ask if she can take me home.

  By the time we finish painting the locker rooms, it’s almost 5 p.m. The sky is thick with gray and the air is heavy, the way it always feels before it rains.

  —

  Through the wide window of Tams’s house, I can see a clump of kids, and I think, Great. This is why I don’t volunteer to pick Dusty up, because this right here is the stuff of nightmares. I can’t find him in a crowd, and my parents think Dusty’s too young for a phone, so it’s not like I can text him to say I’m coming, wait outside. The few times I do go get him, I usually wait in the car and blow the horn.

  Because this apparently isn’t a one-on-one Tams and Dusty playdate situation but the ten-year-old equivalent of Coachella, this is what I do now. The rain pelts the windshield like gunfire. The clump of kids doesn’t move, so I honk again.

  I wait a couple more minutes, and then I turn off the car and twist the rearview mirror so I can look at myself. The guy who stares back at me has seen better days. He’s still got a split lip, and an eye that’s fading from black and blue to violet, thanks to defending Jonny Rumsford. Super.

  I search for anything I can use as coverage, for my face and from the monsoon. There’s an old jacket, which must belong to Marcus, wadded up on the floor below the backseat. I grab it and lunge out into the rain, jogging up the walk, jacket wrapped around my head. I can hear the mad chatter of a thousand high-pitched voices as I ring the doorbell. The door flies open, and I’m greeted by a blond woman with short-cropped hair. This, I think, is Tamara’s mom. She invites me in, and I say through the jacket, “That’s okay. I don’t want to bring all this water in. If you could just send him out.”

  “Nonsense, Jack. Come on in.” She holds the door open wider, and the wind is blowing rain onto her and onto the floor around her, so I step inside.

  “It’s really coming down,” I say.

  “You’re telling me. They were supposed to be outside all day.” She laughs, but it’s laced with hysteria, and I can see how tired she is.

  I’m hoping Dusty will yell hello or otherwise identify himself, but the kids all blink at me, and one of them says, “It’s like God is peeing.” And this must be some really clever ten-year-old joke, the kind you need to be ten to appreciate, because they all start laughing until they practically fall down.

  The woman says to me, “Please take me with you.”

  I laugh as I stand there, trying to seem calm and casual and Hey man, whatever. Meanw
hile, I’m trying to find Dusty in the bunch of kids, but they all look the same. Skinny, short, ears that stick out. All the kids are wearing party hats and only a handful of them are obviously white. I feel a distant flicker of panic in my chest.

  The woman says, “Do you want to stay for a bit?”

  “That’s okay. Dusty and I have someplace to be.” I put my hand on the doorknob as a way of saying See? I say to the room, “Anyone who answers to the name Dusty better join me now.”

  The kids stare at me. In that instant, the flicker of panic sparks into an inferno. If my brother is one of these staring, silent kids, he’s not letting on.

  I look at the group of them and say in their general direction, “Come on, man. We don’t want you to be late.”

  When they don’t budge, I zero in on the one who looks the most like my brother (ears that stick out, Adam’s apple that sticks out, copper-brown hair) and go, “If you’re worried about getting wet, I’ve got this jacket you can use.” And then, because it’s been a long day and I’m sick of being stared at, and because I’m telling myself This is bullshit. How can you not recognize your own brother? I do something I never do—I walk over, leaving big, dirty footprints on the carpet, and grab the kid’s arm before he identifies himself. And drag him toward the door.

  The boy I’m holding on to is fighting me, and it’s then I look up and see this other kid walk into the room. He’s got ears that stick out and an Adam’s apple that sticks out and copper-brown hair, and he goes, “Jack?” And starts to cry.

  The kid I’ve just, until this moment, been dragging away shouts, “Get off me!” Now the other party guests are buzzing, and one of the little girls is crying too. As I let him go, the kid practically spits at me. “Assface.” And starts shaking.

  The woman squats down in front of him. She says in this soothing voice, “It’s okay, Jeremy. He was just joking around, but I think he realizes now that it wasn’t funny.” She shoots me a horrible look.

  “Do you really think it’s funny to come in here and scare people?” This is from a little girl with red hair who may or may not be Tams.

 
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