Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  “Sure.”

  “You would tell me who all of the players were before practice because I could never keep them straight.”

  “You were always getting them mixed up.”

  “It was pretty cool of you to do that.”

  “That’s what we do.” She says it so matter-of-factly that I love her more for it. She smiles into the distance, into the past, and laughs. “You were full of swagger, even then. I’m not sure where that came from. You didn’t get it from us.”

  “I totally got it from you.”

  She smiles. Sighs. “So what’s really up?”

  “Are you and Dad getting divorced?”

  “What? Why would you say that?”

  This is my strong, no-bullshit mother, but there’s something scared hidden deep in her voice, like I may know something she doesn’t. It’s like a knife through the gut, and I wish I’d never heard it, because there’s no way I’m going to forget the sound of it, not if I live to be a hundred.

  “You guys just don’t seem like you lately.”

  “Things have been a little strained.” She is wary. It’s in her face and in her voice. It’s in the way she crosses her arms over her chest. “But you’re the child and I’m the parent, no matter how tall you get or how large you grow that Afro, which means I don’t want you to worry.”

  Her smile is the punctuation, the thing that tells me we’re done here. There’s something in its protectiveness that brings on this wave of déjà vu, and suddenly I’m six years old and lying in the hospital. My mom is holding my hand. She’s talking to my dad, and they’re happy and relieved because I’m going to be okay and he doesn’t have cancer yet and he hasn’t even met Monica Chapman. Mom glances at me and then back at my dad, and her face seems different every time. Is this when it started? But her smile is the same.

  And now, standing in our kitchen, I’m thinking about Dr. Oliver Sacks, who believed that the recognition of faces doesn’t depend solely on the fusiform gyrus twelve, but on the ability to summon up the memories, experiences, and feelings associated with them. Basically, being able to identify the face of someone you know comes with a lot of meaning. It also gives them meaning—the people you know and love.

  My mom already means a lot to me—she’s my mom, after all—but would she mean even more if I could identify her face?

  I say to her, “Just promise me you won’t be one of those couples that stays together for the children. That only screws people up, including the children.” I toss the juice box. Take a breath. Say the thing I probably shouldn’t. “You deserve better.”

  —

  The first attempts at facial recognition technology were made in the 1960s. Every face has distinct landmarks—about eighty of them—and the technology works by measuring these. Width of the nose, distance between the eyes, length of the jaw. All these things are added together to create a sort of faceprint.

  Okay, so that particular kind of technology is beyond me, but what I can do is this: I stay up for hours connecting the wires that make up the robot’s brain. This is a delicate job, like surgery. You can have the grandest design in the whole fucking world, but the thing every single book or video or website will tell you is that you need a complete circuit, perfectly wired, in order for the motors to work. If a single wire is disconnected, the motors won’t spin and your robot won’t function.

  I can’t do anything about my own brain, but I can make sure the red wire goes here, the black wire goes there, must get the wiring right, must make the motor spin. I’m going to fill this robot’s mind with fully working fusiform gyrus twelves. He won’t just have one; he’ll have a hundred.

  Before dinner, I tell my dad I’m going over to our neighborhood Walgreens to buy some “girl things.” Ten minutes later, I’m walking up and down the aisles, fluorescent lights blinding me, filling a basket with junk food. Everything I used to eat—cookies, chips, soda. People are staring at me, and I know how I look: the fat girl getting ready to binge. I don’t care. I suddenly want everything. There’s not enough food on these shelves, not even with Halloween around the corner. I’m grabbing bags of candy, and the basket is full, so I march to the front of the store and find a cart, and I throw the basket in there and go back up and down the same aisles, filling it with all the food I missed.

  I’m standing by the cereal, reaching for a box of Honey Nut Cheerios, when I feel my chest clenching but not unclenching. It clenches tighter and tighter, like someone has wrapped a corset around it. My palms are wet. My head is compressing, growing and shrinking at the same time. I can hear my breathing, and it’s so amplified that, to my own ears, I sound like Darth Vader. A woman at the end of the aisle is frozen as she watches me. She looks scared. A boy comes over, wearing a Walgreens uniform, and he’s maybe sixteen years old. He goes, “Are you okay? Miss?”

  My breathing is getting louder, and I cover my ears to block it out. And that’s when the ceiling starts to spin and the air disappears and my lungs stop working and I can’t breathe at all. I drop everything and run away from the cart and all that food until I’m out the door. I stand in the parking lot, bent over at the waist, breathing in the fresh night air, and then I lie flat on the ground, as if this will open my lungs wider and make them work again, only the breath won’t come. And then I close my eyes, and everything goes black.

  —

  This is the way it happened three years ago. My lungs stopped working, and all the air everywhere, in my house, in the world, disappeared, leaving me on my back, unable to talk or move. There was only panic.

  I open my eyes, and instead of the dingy metal ceiling of a truck, I see the sky.

  Get up, Libby.

  I push myself to sitting and wait as the world rights itself. I look around slowly so that things don’t tilt or spin. Inside Walgreens, I can see the sixteen-year-old boy with a phone to his ear and someone on his way out the door to help the girl lying in the parking lot.

  On your feet.

  I pull myself to standing, and as I do, this feeling comes over me. It’s this kind of quiet, peaceful feeling, and that’s her, that’s my mom. I want it to last, to keep her with me.

  Live live live live…

  And then I breathe.

  I breathe.

  —

  At home, I stand in front of my mirror, wearing the bright purple bikini I bought myself when I first lost the weight. The tags are still attached because I’ve never actually worn it, but now I rip them off and let them fall onto the carpet. I look at myself.

  In the glass, George watches me with the same expression he always wears, and I think, If only people were more like him. He looks at me the way he does when I’m fully clothed, with makeup or without, laughing or crying. He is unwavering, which may be the thing I love most about him.

  Still in my bikini, I sit down on my bed and open my laptop. I stare at the screen for approximately ten seconds, and then the words just pour right out of me.

  THE NEXT DAY

  It’s the first day of swimming, which means for the entire hour of gym class I’ll be fulfilling one of my worst nightmares: parading around in front of my classmates, wearing the world’s smallest, most unflattering piece of clothing.

  I’m in the locker room with thirty other girls, and this is exactly how the nightmare always begins. Everyone who isn’t Caroline Lushamp or Bailey Bishop stares into their lockers, as if this will somehow hide them from sight. Even Kendra Wu is cheating by sitting down on the bench, talking a mile a minute like she’s the most confident thing in the world, when she’s draping a towel around her lap. She ties this around her as she stands, and I know this move because I’ve done it a hundred times.

  I want to shout We still see you, Kendra! You can’t hide from the eyes of your peers! But who cares? You look great! We all look great! Our bodies are wondrous, miraculous things, and we shouldn’t ever feel ashamed of them!

  Bailey is talking to me about a lifeguard named Brandon Something, who was her fir
st real-life crush (not to be confused with her first crush of all, Winnie-the-Pooh’s Christopher Robin). She leans against the locker and waves her hands, like she always does when she talks, and of course she looks like she just stepped off the pages of Seventeen, even in the ugly, shapeless blob that is our regulation black one-piece.

  I’m the heaviest girl here by a mile, and everyone keeps glancing at me to see when I’m going to take it all off, probably because it will make them feel better about their own bodies. I move as if I’m in slow motion, determined to run out the bell. I nudge off one shoe and then the other and place them—one and then the other—neatly, gingerly in my locker, as if they’re made of the finest glass. I remove my bracelet and take the greatest, tenderest care to tuck it into my bag where it will be safe. I do everything but write it a poem, that is how long I’m taking to ensure its comfort. I reach into my pocket and pull out a hair tie and then, as if we have hours to get ready, I pull my hair back and smooth it into place, every last strand, just like I’m a squad captain for the Damsels.

  Caroline walks by and says in my direction, “You can’t delay the inevitable.” But even Miss High and Mighty can’t get to me today.

  Finally, it’s just Bailey and me and a girl named Margaret Harrison, who is chattering into her phone. Our teacher, Ms. Reilly, comes whisking through and, with barely a glance at any of us, goes, “Margaret, phone! Bailey, pool! Libby, swimsuit!” She would be an amazing drill sergeant.

  Bailey waves. “See you out there, Libbs!” And goes bounding off, hair swinging, long legs high-stepping. It is a wonder I like her.

  Now it’s just Margaret and me. She’s still blabbing away, but I really need her to disappear, so I start singing to myself. Loudly. I rearrange my shoes. I check on my bracelet. She continues blabbing, but now she’s watching me. We could be here for days.

  Finally, I’m like, Screw it. I pull off my top. Hang it up in the locker. Pull off my jeans. Hang them on the other hook. I grab my towel, slam the locker door closed. I throw the towel over my shoulder. I meet Margaret’s eyes, and they are wide. The phone is still to her ear, but she has finally, finally stopped talking. I put one hand on my hip, the other behind my head. I do a little pose, and her face breaks into a smile.

  She says into the phone, “Yeah, I’m still here.” And gives me a thumbs-up.

  —

  I stroll into the MVB Aquatic Center.

  Everyone stops.

  Just. Stops.

  From across the pool, Ms. Reilly shouts, “What is that supposed to be, Strout?”

  I holler back, “A purple bikini.”

  And then I strike the same pose, one hand on my hip, one hand behind my head.

  Ms. Reilly is padding toward me, her feet going slap slap slap on the wet cement. “What is that on your stomach?”

  And she must be nearsighted, because I wrote it in giant letters across the widest swath of skin I own.

  “ ‘I am wanted,’ ” I say. “But don’t worry about it washing off in the water. I used a permanent marker.” And then I walk over to the deep end, drop my towel, and execute an Olympic-worthy dive that would impress even the most unimpressible judge.

  My mom learned to swim the year she turned forty, the year before she died. She and I took lessons at the municipal pool near the park, and together we learned to tread water, breathe, do the back float, do the breaststroke, dive. To me, swimming was as natural as walking or sleeping. I felt at home in the water. My mom was more nervous, something she blamed on her age. “You just need to trust the power of the water,” I told her. “Our bodies are designed to float, no matter what. The water will hold you up.”

  I haven’t done much swimming in the years since. But it’s amazing how something like that comes back to you. As I cut through the water now, I forget where I am. It’s me and the water. And my mom, just out of reach. I close my eyes, and I can see her in the lane next to mine.

  I come up for air and open my eyes, and I’m back in the high school swim center, surrounded by gawking, laughing girls. This jars me for a second, but only a second. It is my job in life, apparently, to teach gawking, laughing girls lessons about kindness. If you had told me when I was seven or eight that this was something I’d be taking on, that I would never get a break from it no matter how good I felt about myself, I would have said Thank you, but if it’s all the same I’ll take another job, please. What else do you have for me?

  I know what you’re thinking—if you hate it so much and it’s such a burden, just lose the weight, and then that job will go away. But I’m comfortable where I am. I may lose more weight. I may not. But why should what I weigh affect other people? I mean, unless I’m sitting on them, who cares?

  I find the ladder and climb out. I brush the hair off my face and check my stomach. The writing is still there.

  I pick up my towel and walk past them all into the locker room, where I dry off and pull on my shoes, which I chose especially for today. On one side, I’ve decorated them with this line from A Separate Peace: Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.

  This is mine.

  I make my way through the crowd, pretending to be on my phone. I’m planning to avoid the main hall, even though it will mean going upstairs and around and down again to get to my next class. The closest stairs are in what we call the Four Corners, which is where the main hall branches off in four different directions, and if I’m wily enough, I can duck up these to the second floor. Otherwise, I’ll have to trek all the way to the front hall and take the stairs there. I don’t want to run into anyone.

  I hear my name, but I concentrate on the back of every head in front of me. The hall is jammed with people, and we’re barely moving. Someone is shouting my name over and over, and then this tall girl with dark skin and a painted-on beauty mark by her eye yanks at my arm and goes, “Didn’t you hear me?”

  “Caroline?”

  “I said your girlfriend’s up there. She’s the reason we can’t get through.”

  I stand in the middle of the main hallway. The only thing I’m wearing other than my shoes is my bikini. My suit and hair are still damp, and I’m shivering a little but I’m telling myself, This is your moment in history. This belongs to you.

  Five. Four. Three…

  Iris appears, out of breath. I say, “Did you bring them?”

  “Right here.” She holds up a stack of papers.

  “You may want to get out of here.”

  She shakes her head. “I’m staying.”

  The bell rings and I jump. There’s still time. I could run like the Flash and maybe only be seen by a couple of people.

  But I keep standing there.

  As doors are being thrown open. As the entire student population of MVB High School starts flooding the hall. As everyone is staring. As phones are held up. As—I’m sure of it—four hundred pictures are being taken. As my chest is clenching. As my head feels as if it’s being filled with cotton. As my breathing grows raggedy and uneven. As my palms go clammy.

  I stand there.

  I try to push my way through, but as I’m getting closer to the main hall, things slow down even more, and soon I’m trapped in a crowd, shuffling along, pressed into the girl in front of me and the guy behind me and the girl to my left and the guy to my right. Caroline is somewhere nearby, but I’ve lost her.

  Iris and I are handing out sheets of paper, one for everybody, and they are going fast. My classmates are snatching them up and walking off, reading them while others aim their phones at me and take pictures. I try to pose for as many as I can, because if I’m going out on the Internet, dammit, I want to give them the best possible me.

  Seth Powell and his giant Mohawk appear in front of me, and Jack Masselin is just behind him. Seth goes, “What’s this all about? Is it spirit day?” He laughs so hard he shakes.

  Jack is not laughing. He says, “What are you doing?”

  “I’m reminding people of some basic truths.”
<
br />   Moses Hunt and his crew loom forward, and I give them a copy to share, even though they probably can’t read. I say to Moses, “I hope you learn something, although I doubt you will.”

  He reaches for me like he’s going to hug me, and Jack goes, “Hey!”

  “Fuck you, Masshole. What’s your problem?”

  Seth goes, “His problem is that’s his girlfriend.” And laughs/shakes likes a tambourine.

  I say to Jack, “Thanks anyway, but I don’t need you to protect me.”

  And he says, “You need to put some clothes on.”

  —

  Behind her desk, Principal Wasserman shakes her head. “I’m at a loss, Libby. Help me understand this.” She holds up a copy of the thing I wrote. My Treatise for the World. “Someone’s been harassing you? Sending you letters? Why didn’t you come to me?”

  “I don’t know who sent them, and even if I did, I wouldn’t rat them out, no matter how awful they are. But I felt like I needed to say something.” I’m dressed now, but I’m still shivering. For one thing, my hair is damp. For another, I’m pissed. With a single comment, Jack Masselin has taken away some of the glory of my moment: You need to put some clothes on.

  Principal Wasserman reads my treatise again and then sets it down in front of her. She folds her hands on top of it and looks at me, and I can see the anger in her eyes, but I know it’s not directed at me. “I’m sorry,” she says. “Truly.”

  My eyes are suddenly stinging, which takes me by surprise. I stare at my hands, willing myself not to cry. No need to cry. You rocked it. You made your point. Maybe you even helped someone else today who needed to hear what you had to say.

  “We’re done here.”

  I look up. “Really?”

  “Just let this be the last time you take matters into your own hands, and let this be the last time I see you in here. Unless you get more letters. In that case, I want you to come here directly, without trying to address it on your own. And if you do find out who’s sending them, I want to know that too.”

 
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