Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  YOU ARE WANTED

  by Libby Strout

  “You aren’t wanted.”

  Someone wrote this to me recently in an anonymous letter. I wonder who out there feels like this is an okay thing to say to another person. I mean really. Think about it.

  “You aren’t wanted.”

  It’s pretty much the most despicable thing you could tell somebody.

  What they probably mean to say is “You are fat, and this disgusts me.” So why not say that?

  You don’t know if I’m wanted or not.

  But guess what? I am.

  Believe it or not, I actually have a family who loves me and I also have friends. I’ve even made out with boys. The reason I haven’t had sex is because I’m not ready yet. Not because no one wants me. The thing is, as hateful and small as you are, Person Who Wrote That Letter, I’m pretty damn delightful. I’ve got a good personality and a great brain and I’m strong and I can run. I’m resilient. I’m mighty. I’m going to do something with my life because I believe in myself. I may not know what that something is yet, but that’s only because I am limitless. Can you say the same?

  Life is too short to judge others. It is not our job to tell someone what they feel or who they are. Why not spend some time on yourself instead? I don’t know you, but I can guarantee you have some issues you can work on. And maybe you’ve got a fit body and a perfect face, but I’ll wager you’ve got insecurities too, ones that would keep you from stripping down to a purple bikini and modeling it in front of everyone.

  As for the rest of you, remember this: YOU ARE WANTED. Big, small, tall, short, pretty, plain, friendly, shy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, not even yourself.

  Especially not yourself.

  I stand on the main floor of Masselin’s, wishing baseball season lasted year-round, that I didn’t have to wait till spring, and that we were all required to play. If I’m designing the world, every person in it is wearing a uniform, and this is how we find each other.

  If this was how the world worked, I would recognize Monica Chapman, also standing on the main floor of Masselin’s. I would know instantly that the woman my dad is talking to is her. I wouldn’t have to wonder if she’s been there other times before today, right in front of my eyes.

  Instead, I interrupt the two of them, standing too close near a Star Wars display, where anyone, including my mom, could walk in and see them. They break apart, and then I read my dad’s name tag, and the guilty look on his face.

  She says, “Hi, Jack.”

  Maybe it’s her, maybe it isn’t, but I don’t wait to find out. I look at my dad. I say, “You son of a bitch.” And walk out.

  —

  At home, I swipe everything off the basement shelves and onto the floor. I throw stuff into the trash. I go wild, like a kid having a tantrum, crushing parts under my shoes, slamming things against the plywood table, breaking tools and all this shit I’ve spent so much time designing and building.

  I go wilder, finally hitting a wall until my hand is bleeding. The pain of it feels good, and I like that contact of fist and bone. I hit it again and again. It’s a way to feel something without standing behind this invisible electric fence that divides me from everyone else.

  Half an hour later, I’m cleaning up the mess, all cool and collected, when a man skulks in wearing my dad’s name tag.

  He takes in the chaos around us and then looks me in the eye. “I’m ending it. With her.”

  “None of my business, man.”

  “I just wanted to tell you.”

  “Why now? What made you come to this life-altering decision?”

  “That,” he says, nodding at me. “That anger right there. I’d rather you didn’t hate me.”

  “Don’t put this on me.”

  “It’s not on you. It’s on me. I was given this second chance, not just beating cancer, but a second chance with your mom and a second chance to figure out what I want to do in life.”

  “I thought you loved the store.”

  “I love what it means, and I love the history. I loved going there as a kid. But that doesn’t mean it’s the thing I wanted to do with my life. I had plans.”

  This throws me because it’s the first time I’ve ever thought about my dad doing anything else or having other options.

  “I wanted to be an architect. Or an engineer.”

  And this throws me again because maybe we’re more alike than I thought, and I’m not sure how I feel about this. The only thing I do know, thanks to you and Monica Chapman, is the kind of person I don’t want to be.

  “It’s funny, right? That even though we’re basically alone in here”—he thumps his chest—“it’s easy to lose track of yourself.”

  I want to say I know. I get it. It’s easy to give everyone what they want. What’s expected. The problem with doing this is you lose sight of where you truly begin and where the fake you, the one who tries to be everything to everyone, ends.

  He smiles this sad smile. “I’ve been shitty.”

  “So I guess Dusty got to you too.”

  “I guess so.”

  —

  Marcus and his girlfriend, Melinda, are in our family room, hunched over his phone, whispering their heads off. Marcus looks up and says to me, “Have you seen this?” He holds out the phone.

  I go over, take the phone from him, and there is Libby Strout, wearing nothing but her electric-purple bikini, basically telling the world to fuck off. I was there. I’ve already seen it. But now I’m looking at the way the light catches her hair and at the handful of freckles that dot across her arms and chest, like beauty marks that aren’t painted on.

  Then I make the mistake of reading the comments. Some of them are nasty. But some of them are really nice. I don’t take a count, but I’m relieved to see the nice ones seem to outnumber the nasty ones. I give the phone back to my brother, and he barely notices because he and Melinda have started arguing.

  She goes, “I’m serious. It’s not funny, Cuss.” This is what she calls him. “I feel sorry for her.”

  I say, “Why do you feel sorry for her, Da?” As in Duh. This is what I like to call her.

  She blinks her big, dumb eyes at me. “I mean, it can’t be easy being her.”

  “Why?” I shouldn’t mess with her, the way I do with Seth, but I can’t help it.

  “Well. I mean. You know.” She holds up the phone and points at the screen.

  “She seems like she’s doing all right to me.”

  Libby’s “You Are Wanted” paper is upstairs on my desk. Ever since I read it, I’ve been trying to ignore the voice that’s saying This is your fault. If you hadn’t grabbed her, she wouldn’t be a target, and if she wasn’t a target, she wouldn’t have felt like she had to prove herself to the entire school.

  Martin Van Buren High is actually really beautiful, which is weird when you stop to think of how many people over the past ninety-some years of its lifetime have spent so much time dreading being here. We have a real, honest-to-God art gallery in our school, our gym seats ten thousand people, and Civic Auditorium, attached to the athletic center, is the town’s venue for concerts and shows. There’s a salad bar and a pizza bar and a sandwich bar in the cafeteria, and there’s even a small convenience store by the nurse’s office. But it might as well be Petak Island Prison, in the middle of a lake in the deepest, most remote part of Russia, where prisoners spend twenty-two hours a day in their cells and only get visitors twice a year. This is what it can feel like to be here.

  Today is no exception. Everyone—and I mean everyone—knows my name now, and all of them can picture me in a bathing suit. Even the people who weren’t actually there. The YouTube video is called Fat Girl Fights Back: Libby Strout, formerly America’s Fattest Teen, tells classmates “You Are Wanted.” It was posted last night and already has 262,356 views.

  Imagine it.

  I can tell you from experience that it is really weird and really unsettling. That guy over there with the G
ame of Thrones notebook. That girl and her friends with their band instruments. The cheerleaders. The basketball team. And oh right, the teachers.

  I did not think this through.

  It may be my imagination, but every pair of eyes lands on me as I walk through the halls. I walk and breathe, walk and breathe. I start to strut a little. I try adding in a sashay. I remember how it felt dancing in my room to the Spice Girls, and I tell myself, That is who you really are. Some kind of superstar, just like in the song.

  I only get one moo. Everyone else just stares.

  In the hallway, Mr. Levine says, “Everything okay, Libby?”

  Which tells me, whether he’s seen it or not, he must know about Fat Girl Fights Back.

  “Just because I see you in our Conversation Circles doesn’t mean you can’t talk to me. It is kind of what I do, you know.”

  “I know. Thanks, Mr. Levine. Everything’s great. Really.” I’m not sure he believes me, but I hurry off before he can ask me anything else.

  —

  I eat lunch in the art room with Bailey, Jayvee, and Iris because right now it’s more peaceful (i.e., less traumatic) than the cafeteria. They start talking, as they always do, about what they’ll do beyond school, when MVB is over and we’re free. Bailey is planning to be an artist and also a doctor, and Jayvee is going to be a writer.

  At some point, Iris looks at me and says, “I wish I was like them. I wish I knew what I was going to do.”

  “You could be a singer. If I had a voice like yours, Iris Engelbrecht, I would sing all day just to hear myself.”

  Her ears turn bright pink. She takes a sip of her Diet Coke. “That’s not a career, that’s a hobby.” She’s quoting someone, maybe her mom.

  “Tell that to Taylor Swift.” I scroll through my phone, choose a song, and hit Play. They all go quiet as I start dancing. I say, “I’m going to be a dancer. Maybe I’ll even be a Rockette.” I kick my leg. I kick it as high as the sky.

  Jayvee starts clapping and whistling.

  “I’m starting my own dance club. I’ll take everyone who can’t be a Damsel or anyone who doesn’t want to be a Damsel. We won’t dance in formation and we won’t dance with flags. We’ll just get out there and do whatever we want, but we’ll do it together.”

  “I want to be in your dance club!” Bailey is up and shaking it, hair flying.

  “Me too.” Jayvee climbs onto a desk, all jazz hands and waving arms. She tips an imaginary top hat and smiles the biggest, scariest stage smile anyone has ever seen.

  Iris sets down her Diet Coke. She dabs at her mouth with her napkin. And then she starts to sing along, drowning out the Spice Girls with that big, gorgeous voice of hers. She shimmies a little in her seat, shoulders moving to the left, shoulders moving to the right. I grab a paintbrush and hand it to her, and like that, it’s not a paintbrush, it’s a microphone, and we’re not in a high school art room; we’re onstage, all of us, together, doing our own thing.

  Until Mr. Grazer, art teacher, walks in and shouts, “What is going on in here?”

  Bailey pipes up. “We’re just expressing our art, Mr. G.”

  “Well, express it a little more quietly, Bailey.”

  A ring of chairs is arranged in the middle of the basketball court. It appears that in today’s Conversation Circle—our very last one—we will be sitting in an actual circle.

  I almost turn around and walk out, but it’s the final day, after all, so I make myself take a seat, say hey to the collective group, and wait for Mr. Levine to join us. I stretch my legs in front of me, cross them at the ankle, tip my head back, close my eyes. Everyone will think I’m hung over or tired or just bored out of my mind, but actually my heart is beating a little too fast, a little too loud.

  Whatever this circle is about can’t be good.

  I listen as everyone settles in, as their voices rise and fall. I hear Libby say something as she takes a seat, and then I hear the squeak of sneakers on the scuffed-up floor, and this is Mr. Levine.

  He says, “You’re probably wondering why, in this Conversation Circle of ours, we’re sitting in a circle.”

  I open my eyes, sit up a little, try to look interested and like this doesn’t scare the shit out of me. I glance over at Libby. I want to say I’m sorry. I miss you. But she’s watching Mr. Levine, who’s cradling a basketball.

  “Today we’re going to take turns saying five positive things about each person here. So if I’m starting, I’ll say five great things about, let’s say, Maddy.” He tosses the ball to Maddy. “You’re kind, punctual, polite, get along well with others, and you’re a lot more confident than you were when we first started this Circle. Then Maddy says five great things about me.”

  Maddy goes, “You wear cool bow ties, you look like Doctor Who, you’re pretty chill for a teacher, you don’t lecture us too much, and you keep it interesting.” She throws the ball back to Mr. Levine.

  “Excellent, Maddy, and thank you. So next I would throw the ball to Jack or Andy or Natasha or Travis or Libby or Keshawn, until I’ve said something about everyone. We’ll go round and round till everyone has taken a turn. Questions?”

  Keshawn goes, “Like, anything, as long as it’s good?”

  “Let’s say anything with a PG-13 rating.” They all laugh except Keshawn, who looks disappointed.

  So now we’re all glancing around at each other, studying each other, no doubt trying to think of five nice things to say. I’m studying them too, but in a different way. After all this time, I can pick out Keshawn in this group, and Natasha must be the girl with long brown hair with her hand on his leg—at least I hope so, for Keshawn’s sake. I know Libby because she’s the largest of the girls, and I know Maddy, thanks to Mr. Levine. But as usual I’m having trouble with Andy and Travis. They’re the same height, same build, and both have scraggly hair that falls in their eyes. You can tell some people by mannerisms, like the way they brush the hair off their face, but these guys just blink on through it.

  I tell myself I’ll be okay as long as Levine chooses someone else to go first. So now I try to think of what to say about these people. Keshawn and Natasha were caught having sex in one of the bathrooms, which is by far the best reason any of us have for being here, but I can’t exactly mention this as one of my positive things. Maddy is here for stealing makeup out of random lockers. Andy destroyed school property (by pissing on it), and Travis, on a dare, lit up a joint during class. So yeah. The only person I can think of nice things to say about is Libby. And instead of thinking of five good things to say about her, I can think of a hundred.

  Levine says, “Jack, why don’t you start us off?”

  Crap.

  I flash him a grin. “Ladies first. Chivalry and all that.”

  “While I’m sure the ladies appreciate the gesture, I’m betting they won’t mind in this case.” He sits back in his chair, folds his arms across his chest, and waits.

  For whatever reason, I look right at Libby. Don’t abandon me, Libby Strout, not when I need you most. She frowns, and for a minute I expect her to tell me off or flip me off or maybe just get up and walk out. But she must see my panic because she goes, “I’m sorry, Mr. Levine, but before I forget—Travis, do we have a test tomorrow in driver’s ed?” She’s looking at the guy across from her, the one in the black long-sleeved jersey.

  “What? Fuck, do we?” He blinks at her through his hair, his mouth popped open in an O, and suddenly I feel like laughing.

  “I thought Dominguez said…Or maybe that was another class…Oh wait, wait. I’m thinking of history.”

  Mr. Levine is looking at her like he knows she’s up to something, but all he says is “Go ahead, Jack.”

  Keshawn’s a good basketball player. Natasha is a positive person who’s always smiling. Maddy seems very smart. Andy helped take us to state last year in football. Travis has a great collection of vintage T-shirts. That kind of thing.

  Here is what they say about me: Jack’s good-looking. Jack’s got it all
together. Jack drives a cool car. Jack lives in a nice house. Jack’s got a great smile. Jack’s got great hair. Jack’s smart. Jack’s funny. Jack’s a good baseball player. Jack will probably get into any college he applies to.

  I know they mean well, but I’m left feeling deflated. Maybe they’re all feeling like this too, but I want to go You don’t know me. If that’s all you think I am, you don’t have a clue.

  But whose fault is that?

  I turn to Libby. “You’re kind. Probably the kindest person I know. You’re also forgiving, at least a little, but I’m hoping a lot, and in my book that’s a superpower.” Her eyes are on mine, and there’s a lot going on there. “You’re smart as hell, and you don’t take people’s crap, least of all mine. You are who you are. You know who that is, and you aren’t afraid of it, and how many of us can say that.” She’s not smiling, but it’s not about what her mouth is doing. It’s about her eyes. “You’re strong too. It’s not just a matter of being able to knock down a guy with a single shot to the jaw.” (Everyone laughs, except her.) “I’m talking about inner strength. Like, if I would draw that inner strength it might look a lot like a triangle made of carbyne. That’s the world’s strongest structure and the world’s strongest material. You also make things better for people around you…”

  I’m about to go on, but Mr. Levine says, “That’s actually more than five. I want you to keep going, but I’d like to get through everyone today. Good work, though, Jack. Way to kick this off.”

  Libby is still looking at me, and her eyes are as open as the sky.

  And then there’s this moment.

  It’s almost like I see her. Not just the amber-colored eyes or the freckles on her cheeks, but really see her.

  “Jack? It’s Libby’s turn.”

  I rub the back of my neck, where the hairs are prickling.

  “Yeah. Sure.” I throw the ball to her.

 
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