Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  Jack says, “So after all those years of pushing himself and not giving up, it’s like the pressure did Herschel in. When he was asked about the DID, he compared it to hats—you know how we wear hats for all different situations? One for family. One for school. One for work. But with DID, it’s like the hats get mixed up. So you’re wearing the football hat at home, the family hat at work…”

  “Too many hats.” I think, I know what this is like.

  “After a while, it gets hard to keep them straight.”

  And I wonder if we’re still talking about Herschel Walker or if we’re now talking about Jack.

  He says, “I think we’re more like Herschel Walker than Mary Katherine Blackwood. I actually don’t think we’re like her at all.”

  I can feel him looking at me, but I keep my eyes on the road.

  He says, “Thank you for helping me tonight.”

  “I prefer to think of it as saving.”

  “Fine. Thank you for saving me.” And now I can’t help but look at him. And he smiles. It is slow at first, creeping across his face like a sunrise until suddenly it shines like the hottest point of the day. I sit on one hand so that I don’t cover my eyes, which is what I want to do.

  I smile at him.

  And our eyes lock.

  Neither of us breaks away, and I actually don’t want to, even when I remind myself I’m driving, Hello.

  I drag my eyes away and stare out the windshield, but everything is a blur. I can feel him looking at me.

  You need to calm down, girl. Calm. Yourself. Down.

  We hit a pothole, and the Land Rover sounds as if it’s going to bottom out.

  Jack says, “Christ, this car is shit.”

  —

  We turn onto my old street, Capri Lane. I haven’t been back here since that day they carried me away to the hospital. Jack is talking, but I’m not listening because everything is coming back to me. My mom. Being trapped in there. The feeling of not being able to breathe, of thinking this was it, of thinking I was dying. Of being rescued.

  When I woke up in the hospital, everything was white. Blue, gray, black, white, like they were the only colors in the world. “You had an anxiety attack,” my dad said. “You’re going to be okay, but we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

  We’re getting closer to my house, and I can see it coming toward me, only it’s nothing like it used to be because, of course, they had to tear my house down, didn’t they? Even though it was the last place I saw my mom alive. Even though memories of her were in every wall and floor.

  I expect to drive right by it, but Jack says, “Pull over here.” At first, I wonder if he’s playing some sort of messed-up joke. But no, he’s waving at the two-story house across the street and saying, “Let’s see if my brother’s in there. If he is, he can drive you home.” He gets out of the Land Rover and starts up the walk.

  I don’t move.

  Then—somehow—I open the door. I set one foot on the ground. I pull myself out. I set the other foot on the ground. I stand there.

  I say, “That’s your house?”

  He turns. “Come on already.” And then he looks past me at where I used to live, and his face goes blank, almost like he’s seeing a ghost.

  “How long have you lived there?” It’s all I can do to get the words out.

  He doesn’t answer. He looks like he’s having a stroke.

  “Jack? How long have you lived there? In that house?”

  Silence.

  “Answer me.”

  “All my life.”

  And the world

  just

  stops.

  “Can you tell me what happened, Libbs? Can you tell me what has you so panicked?”

  “All of it.” That was my answer, even though I knew my dad was expecting something more specific. “Everything. It was you. Me. Aneurysms. Death. Cancer. Murder. Crime. Mean people. Rotten people. Two-faced people. Bullies. Natural disasters. The world has me panicked. The world did this. Especially the way it gives you people to love and then takes them away.” But the answer was actually simple. I had decided to be afraid.

  I don’t know how long it takes me to speak. Finally I say, “I used to live there.” I point at the new house, shiny and big and perfectly intact, that sits on top of the grave that is my old one. The new house is nothing like the one that was there before it.

  “I know.”

  “How do you know?” And by now, I’m waiting for it. I just want to hear him say it.

  “Because I was there the day they cut you out.”

  Marcus is driving, and I’m in back. My brother is in a mood about having to leave the house, and now he’s shooting me death looks via the rearview mirror. He won’t even turn on the radio, this is how bad it is. The three of us are driving in silence except for Libby going “Turn here” and “Make a right there.” Her voice sounds frostbitten. Now that I’m doing nothing but sitting, my head has gone heavy from the booze.

  It’s warm in the car and quiet. So quiet. I must blur off for a bit because my phone buzzes and I jump. I dig it out of my pocket and there’s a text from Kam.

  You ok, man?

  I text back: Fine.

  Seth said something about you going blind?

  I stare at the screen, at the back of Libby’s head. I click my phone off, then click it on again. I write:

  I’m face-blind. Prosopagnosia. It’s a thing. Just diagnosed.

  When he doesn’t write back, I shove the phone into my pocket. I get this urge to shout into the silence, but I don’t. In a few minutes my phone buzzes again. I don’t bother to look at it.

  —

  We eventually get to her neighborhood, and Marcus slows the car to a crawl, inching along, peering out the window. Part of me hopes we’ll never find her house so that I can make this right, and another part of me is just done. Done with her. Done with everything.

  Inevitably, we’re there, and I’m struck all over again by how her house looks exactly like all the other ones. If I was designing a home for Libby Strout, it would be exceptional. It would be one of a kind. It would be bright red with a tin roof, at least two stories, possibly more, a state-of-the-art weather station, and lots of turrets. Also a tower, but not one to lock her in. It would be a place where she could sit and look out over and beyond the town, as far as the horizon, maybe even past it.

  Marcus says, “We’re here.”

  Libby tells him thank you and practically hurls herself out of the car. I always forget how fast she is. She’s at her front door by the time I manage to get myself up the walk.

  She whips around to face me. “What? What is it, Jack? What? What?”

  “I’m sorry I didn’t say anything. But I didn’t want to embarrass you any more than I already had.”

  “You could have mentioned it.”

  “I could have mentioned it. If it helps, I’ll write you a letter of apology.” I give her a hopeful smile, but she waves her hand at me like she’s erasing it.

  “No. Keep that to yourself, do you understand me, Jack Masselin? Put that smile away. That doesn’t work on me. You’re so worried that you can’t ever be close to anyone, but it’s not the face blindness that’s to blame; it’s you. All the smiling and the faking and pretending to be what you think people want you to be. That’s what keeps you isolated. That’s what screws you up. You need to try being a real person.”

  I drop the smile.

  “Next to my mom dying, being cut out of my house was the worst moment of my life. Do you know I got hate mail? Everyone had something to say about what happened, about how fat I was, about my dad. They wanted to make sure I knew just how disgusted they were and how disgusting I was. They sent them to the hospital and they sent them here. They found my email and sent them directly. I mean, who does that? Who sees a story like that on the news and says, I’m going to write her a letter and give her a piece of my mind. I wonder if I should mail it to the hospital or just hand-deliver it. Did you an
d your brothers have a good laugh over it?”

  Her eyes are blazing. She is daring me to say Yes, that’s exactly how it was, my brothers and I split a rib over it. We love to watch people almost die.

  Instead I say, “I’m sorry.”

  In that moment, I want to write not just one apology letter but hundreds, one for every horrible person who ever did or said anything mean to her.

  “There’s no way anyone would have done that if they knew you. And just so you know, not everyone was wishing you harm. We were rooting for you. I was rooting for you.”

  “What did you say?”

  “I was rooting for you.”

  Something passes across her face, and I can see it—she knows I’m the one who sent her the book.

  My dad is sitting in front of the computer. The minute he hears me come in, he’s up and pointing at the clock on the wall. “What happened?”

  I tell him because I’m too tired to pretend everything’s fine. Honestly, he does need to worry about me. I can’t protect him forever. So I tell him everything, starting with Mick from Copenhagen and the fight and Moses Hunt and taking Jack home and realizing he was there the day they knocked down our house, and finding out that all this time he was Dean of Dean, Sam, and Castiel. And then I tell him the other things I stopped telling him a while ago—about the letters and the Damsels and the purple bikini. I’m weary and angry and sad and heartbroken and empty, and more than anything, I want to go to sleep. But my dad is all I have.

  He is pacing as I talk, and as soon as I stop, he stops. He says, “I need to know that you’re okay. I need to know if I should go over to the Hunts’ and punch that kid myself.”

  He is angry at the world outside this house, and that makes me love him even more.

  “I’m good, Dad.”

  “You’d tell me.” It’s a question. “You will tell me.”

  “I will. Always. From now on.” And then I say, “I’m sorry. For everything I put you through.”

  I can tell he knows I’m talking about everything, not just tonight.

  “I’m sorry too, Libbs.”

  And it hits me square in the face. All the grief my dad has taken and swallowed and carried—not just the loss of my mom, but the loss of compassion from the people who blamed him for what happened to me. If he got mad, I never saw it. He just carries on, making sure I eat healthy, trying to keep me safe and feeling loved.

  And then, maybe to prove there are no secrets between us, he tells me about the woman he’s been seeing off and on for a while. Her name is Kerry and she teaches math at one of the middle schools. She’s his age, married once, no kids. He didn’t want to tell me because he’s not sure where this will lead or what their relationship means, and he wants to be careful with me, with her. But I think really he just didn’t want me to feel bad about being the only one in the world who hadn’t moved on.

  I say this to him now, and he takes my hand. “It’s not moving on, Libbs. It’s moving differently. That’s all it is. Different life. Different world. Different rules. We don’t ever leave that old world behind. We just create a new one.”

  It’s after 1 a.m. when Marcus and I get home. I stand in front of the open fridge for at least five minutes, maybe more, willing something good to materialize—a pizza, a whole chicken, a giant steak, or a rack of ribs. When it doesn’t, I grab a soda and some kind of guacamole/spinach/cheese dip, scrounge up some chips from the pantry, and sit down in the dark kitchen to eat myself a feast.

  I’m halfway into the chips when my phone lights up across the room, where I left it. I get up, in case it’s Libby, even though I know it won’t be. It’s Kam. He says:

  Shit. This prosopagnosia is one trippy mo-fo. But hey man, we’ve all got something. We’re all weird and damaged in our own way. You’re not the only one.

  I read it three times because, honestly, I’m stunned. Maybe Dave Kaminski will actually turn into one of the good guys before adulthood.

  Another text comes in.

  Douche.

  I text back.

  Dick.

  And then I leave everything and walk up the stairs to my parents’ room. I bang on the door. I just bang the hell out of it till another door opens and this skinny kid with big ears goes, “Jack?”

  “Sorry to wake you, buddy. Can you get Marcus?”

  “Sure.”

  The door to my parents’ room opens, and the woman who answers looks half-asleep. Her hair is sticking up, and she’s got one eye closed. “Jack?” At the sight of me, both eyes open wide, and she’s reaching out toward my face, my chest. “Oh my God, what happened to you?” And I remember, Oh yeah, the Hunt brothers kicked the shit out of me.

  “It’s nothing. I’m fine. Listen, I need to talk to you and Dad.” I look past her, but the room is empty. Behind me, there’s the sound of a door opening, and the man who must be my father appears from the guest room.

  —

  The five of us sit on my parents’ bed, just like it’s Christmas Eve and we’re kids again. Marcus hasn’t said a word. He just stares at me from under all that hair.

  I say to them, “It’s a rare neurological disorder.”

  Mom is googling as I talk.

  Dad: “Are you having vision problems or headaches?”

  Dusty: “Maybe it’s a concussion.”

  “It’s not a vision problem, and it’s not a concussion.”

  Dad: “I get confused sometimes too. I forget names all the time. All these years at the store, I still can’t remember people.”

  “It’s not the same. There’s a specific part of our brain called the fusiform gyrus twelve that identifies and recognizes faces. For some reason, mine is missing or doesn’t work.”

  Dusty wants to know where it is, and I show him, and then Mom finds a diagram of the brain. They all lean in, even Marcus, and Mom reads, “ ‘People with prosopagnosia have great difficulty recognizing faces, and may fail to recognize people that they have met many times and know well—even family.’ ” She glances up at me like Is this true? and I nod. “ ‘Prosopagnosia is caused by a problem with processing visual information in the brain, which can be present at birth or develop later due to brain injury.’ ”

  Marcus says, “Like when you fell off the roof.”

  I tell them I was tested, and they have a million questions. I answer them as best I can, and at some point my mom says, “I want you to remember that you can’t feel responsible for everything. We’re your parents, and we will figure us out. All you need to do, any of you”—she looks at my brothers—“is be a kid for now and let us be there for you.”

  “All of us?” Dusty says. “Even those of us without neurological disorders?”

  “All of you.”

  I’ve always thought you should be able to freeze time. This way you could hit the Pause button at a really good point in your life so that nothing changes. Think about it. Loved ones don’t die. You don’t age. You go to bed and wake up the next morning to find everything just as you left it. No surprises.

  If I could freeze time, this is the moment I would choose, falling asleep on my dad’s shoulder, George on my lap, like I’m eight years old again.

  This is what I know about loss:

  • It doesn’t get better. You just get (somewhat) used to it.

  • You never stop missing the people who go away.

  • For something that isn’t there anymore, it weighs a ton.

  By the time I started eating—really eating—the loss was already so big it felt like I was carrying around the world. So carrying around the weight wasn’t any heavier. It was trying to carry around both that got to be too much. Which is why sometimes you have to set some of it down. You can’t carry all of it forever.

  It’s almost dawn by the time I get to bed. I lie on top of the blanket, wide awake, shoes on, clothes on, staring at the ceiling. I feel full, and also empty, but not in a bad way. Maybe empty’s not the right word. I feel light.

  I may love L
ibby Strout.

  Not just like like her.

  Love.

  As in I love her.

  I love her rollicking, throaty laugh that makes her sound as if she’s got a cold. I love the way she struts like she’s on a catwalk. I love the hugeness of her, and I don’t mean her actual physical weight.

  And then I start thinking about her eyes. If you asked me to tell you what Caroline’s eyes look like, I couldn’t tell you. Even though I can describe them when I’m looking directly into them, I can’t describe them when she’s not in front of me.

  But I can tell you what Libby’s eyes look like.

  They are like lying in the grass under the sky on a summer day. You’re blinded by the sun, but you can feel the ground beneath you, so as much as you think you could go flying off, you know you won’t. You’re warmed from the inside and from the outside, and you can still feel that warmth on your skin when you walk away.

  I can tell you other things too.

  1. She has a constellation of freckles on her face that remind me of Pegasus (left cheek) and Cygnus (right cheek).

  2. Her eyelashes are as long as my arm, and when she’s flirting, she does this deliberate, slow blink that knocks me off my feet.

  3. Also there’s her smile. Let me tell you, it’s amazing, like it comes from the deepest part of her, a part made of blue skies and sunshine.

  And then I’m like, Wait a damn minute.

  I sit up. Rub my head. Maybe it’s the booze, but…

  When did I start being able to remember her face?

  And suddenly I’m having this total Sixth Sense experience as my mind scrolls back over the weeks I’ve known her. I run through every single time I’ve seen her, every instance I’ve been able to pick her out of a crowd or find her out of context. I test myself.

  Picture her eyebrows.

  Slightly arched, as if she’s always amused.

 
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