Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven


  Picture her nose.

  The way it wrinkles when she laughs.

  Picture her mouth.

  Not just the red of her lips, but the way the corners turn up, as if she’s smiling even when she isn’t.

  Picture all the pieces together.

  The way her cheekbones curve out and her chin curves in, almost like a heart. The fierceness and softness and glow of her that make her look so ALIVE.

  All this time, I thought it was her weight that made me see her.

  But it’s not her weight at all.

  It’s her.

  I’m up early, even though it’s Sunday. I leave my dad a note and then I’m out of the house, bundled in a jacket and scarf. After a block, my hands are freezing, and I jam them deep into my coat pockets. I’m meeting Rachel in the park because I have something to tell her. I know why I punched Jack Masselin.

  —

  There’s a chill in the air that feels like winter, or at least the start of it. This is my least-favorite time of year because everything dies or goes to sleep, and there’s too much death and stillness, and the sky turns gray for so long, you think it will never be blue again. Right now the sky can’t quite make up its mind. It’s blue in patches, gray in patches, with spots of white, like a faded quilt.

  Rachel has brought us hot cider from the coffee shop by her house. We sit looking at the golf course, blowing on our drinks to cool them down. I tell her a little about Mick from Copenhagen and Moses Hunt and taking Jack home.

  “Jack as in Jack?”

  “Jack as in Jack.”

  Before she can ask me about him, I tell her about the dance team I’m starting with Bailey, Jayvee, and Iris. “The best thing is, anyone can join. No weight restrictions or height restrictions or age restrictions or sex restrictions. No restrictions at all. If you can dance, even a little, you’re in. And we dance for the joy of dancing, whenever and wherever we want.”

  “Can I join?”

  “Of course.”

  “Will there be twirling?”

  “Of course!”

  “And costumes?”

  “Yes, but each one will be different.”

  She tells me about her new girlfriend, Elena, a graphic designer she met at Winkler’s Bakery. She says they have a lot of silly things in common but also real things, important things, like they were the same age when they came out to family and friends. She blows on her drink, takes a sip. She eyes me over the cup. “You know, that’s what you’ve been doing in a way—coming out. Coming out of your room. Coming out of your house. Coming out of your shell.”

  “I guess I have.” I think about Jack, as alone in himself as I was in my room for all those years.

  As if she reads my mind she says, “So why did you do it? Why did you hit him?”

  “Because after all I’ve been through, I felt like he was trying to single-handedly pick me up and stuff me back into that house and lock me in. Like he was telling me I was right to be panicked and I was right to be afraid.”

  “No one can lock you back in, Libby. You choose whether you let them.”

  “I know that now, like really know that. I thought I knew that then, but I didn’t.”

  “So are you still friends?”

  “He lied to me.”

  “Or he might have been trying to protect you. I’m not defending him, but he probably thought he was doing the right thing.”

  “Maybe.” And then I tell her about the letters.

  She sets down her drink. “When was the last time you got one?”

  “It’s been a while. Since before I wore the purple bikini.”

  “Did you find out who was writing them?”

  “No, but I’m pretty sure I know. And I feel sorry for her because this person will never come out. She keeps who she really is locked away where no one can find her, where she can’t even find her.”

  Rachel picks up her drink again. “To Libby Strout, the biggest person I know, and I don’t mean on the outside.”

  We tap our recycled cups.

  “And to Rachel Mendes, for loving me even though you don’t have to.”

  I almost say And for saving my life because for some reason I’m thinking of myself at eleven and then at thirteen. That girl feels like a different girl, someone from a lifetime ago, not anyone who has anything to do with the me I am now. Except that I know I wouldn’t be me without her. I wouldn’t be Libby Strout, high school junior, with my very own group of friends. I wouldn’t have danced or twirled or tried out for the Damsels. I wouldn’t have stood up for myself or worn my purple bikini. I wouldn’t have gone to Bloomington or Clara’s with a boy I liked. Really liked. I wouldn’t have had my heart broken because I would have been too afraid. And even though the ache of that heartbreak hurts like hell, it’s so much better than feeling nothing.

  Another thing I wouldn’t be doing: sitting on this bench, the cold biting my cheeks and nose, drinking hot cider with a good friend. And even though I didn’t know this exact moment existed, I wanted to be out here in the world to see it.

  —

  After Rachel leaves, I leave my copy—the copy—of We Have Always Lived in the Castle on the bench with this note:

  Dear friend,

  You are not a freak. You are wanted. You are necessary. You are the only you there is. Don’t be afraid to leave the castle. It’s a great big world out there.

  Love, a fellow reader

  Her dad tells me she’s at the park with a friend, and that’s where I’m headed. My phone rings, and it’s Kam, but I don’t answer.

  So what if it was Dr. Klein calling to say she was wrong, that there’s a cure? What would I do? Would I alter my brain if it meant getting to recognize people the way everyone else does?

  Would I?

  I turn this over in my mind, trying to imagine it, trying to picture how it might change me.

  I wouldn’t be me anymore, would I? Because as long as I can remember, this is how I find people. I study them. I learn their details.

  The thing is I don’t know what it means to see the world like others do. Maybe I don’t recognize myself in a mirror, and maybe I can’t exactly tell you what I look like, but I don’t think I’d know myself the way I do without prosopagnosia. The same goes for my parents and my brothers and my friends and Libby. I’m talking about all the details that make them them. They look at each other and see the same thing, but I have to work harder to see what’s there behind the face. It’s as if I take the person apart and then reconstruct them. I rebuild them the same way I built the Shitkicker for Dusty.

  This is me.

  Does it make me feel special? A little. I’ve had to work really fucking hard to learn everyone, and even if skin color and hair color help me find people, that’s not who they are to me. It’s not about that. It’s about the important things, like the way their face lights up when they laugh, or the way they move as they’re walking toward you, or the way their freckles create a map of the stars.

  I’m on the edge of the park, bundled in my jacket, scarf pulled up over my chin, when a rust-colored Land Rover comes cruising along. It slams to a stop in the middle of the road, and, engine still running, Jack Masselin climbs out and swaggers over to me.

  “What are you doing here?”

  “Your dad said you were here. Jesus, it’s cold. Are you really walking back to your house?”

  “What. Are. You. Doing. Here?” I say it slower and louder.

  “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you where I lived and that I saw you the day you were rescued. I should have told you, and you have every right to be pissed at me.”

  “Yeah, you should have.”

  “I know. I was wrong. But if it’s okay with you, there’s something else I need to say right now. We can go back to that later, and you can give me hell about it all you want.”

  “What, Jack?”

  “You’re the one I see.”

  “What?”

  “You’re the one I see, Libby Stro
ut. You.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I see you. I remember you. I recognize you.”

  I wave at my body. “It’s not like you have fat blindness.”

  “Christ almighty, woman. Work with me here.”

  “So what? You use identifiers to figure out who people are. The weight is mine.”

  “Your identifier is you. I remember your eyes. Your mouth. The freckles on both cheeks that look like constellations. I know your smiles, at least three of them, and at least eight of your expressions, including the ones you only do with your eyes. If I could draw, I would draw you, and I wouldn’t need to look at you to do it. Because your face is stuck in my mind.”

  And then he closes his eyes and describes how I look in a way I’ve never heard before. As I’m hearing it, my heart is racing, and I know this is something I’ll never forget, not even fifty years from now.

  He opens his eyes and says, “I know the way you move. I know the way you look at me. I see you see me, and you’re the only one who looks at me that way. Whether I’m with you or away from you, I don’t have to think about it or put the puzzle pieces together. It’s just you. That’s what I know.”

  “That doesn’t have to mean you love me. Just because you see me.”

  His eyebrows shoot up, and he’s laughing. “Who said anything about love?”

  I want more than anything to disappear into thin air.

  “If, hypothetically, I did love you, though, it’s not because I see you, and, Oh well, at least I can see her, so I might as well love her. I’m pretty sure I see you because I love you. And yeah, I guess I love you because I see you, as in I see you, Libby, as in all of you, as in every last amazing thing.”

  I wait for him to say hypothetically again, but he doesn’t.

  Instead he looks at me.

  I look at him.

  And we’re having a moment.

  It lasts for seconds, maybe minutes.

  I pull the scarf up over my nose. I want to pull it over my whole head.

  “Here.”

  He hands me something. I turn it over in my palm, and it’s a magnet. OHIO WELCOMES YOU.

  At first, I don’t know why he’s giving this to me. We’ve never been to Ohio together. I’ve only been to Ohio once.

  Years ago.

  With my parents.

  Suddenly, I’m transported back to my house, back to the day my mom first stuck that on our fridge. “We’re going to fill this up with magnets of all the places we’ll go,” she said. “Ohio may not seem exotic, but one day, when this is covered, you’ll look back on it and think, That’s the one that started it all.”

  He says, “I never should have taken it.”

  “Taken it?”

  “From your house. I went back that day, to see what I could learn about you. I had to tell the security guy to pay attention so you weren’t looted.”

  “After you looted this.”

  “Yeah. And your book, the one I sent you.”

  “What made you keep the magnet?”

  “It reminded me of you.”

  “Wow, you are sappy.”

  He laughs, rubs his jaw. “Apparently.”

  “That’s okay.” My voice is muffled by the scarf. I fold my hand around the magnet. It sounds silly, but I can’t help thinking, She held this. Part of her is still here. “I’m glad you took it.”

  It’s the one that started it all.

  “Libby Strout.” His mouth and eyes are serious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so serious. “You are wanted.”

  And then he tugs the scarf away.

  He takes my face in his hands, carefully, delicately, like it’s a rare and precious jewel.

  And he kisses me.

  It’s the greatest kiss of my life, which I realize isn’t saying much. But it’s one of those world-expanding kisses that I’d put against any other kiss that has happened and will ever happen to anyone anywhere. It’s as if he’s breathing for me, or maybe we’re breathing for each other, and I’m merging into him and him into me, so that my limbs aren’t limbs, and the bones melt away and then the muscle and the skin until all that’s left is electricity. The hazy-gray, early-morning sky morphs into the night sky, and stars are everywhere, so close I feel I could really collect them and take them home, maybe wear them in my hair.

  I don’t know who pulls away first, maybe him, maybe me. But then we’re standing with our foreheads touching, which I’m grateful for because there’s this part of me that’s inwardly shrieking, Oh my God, it’s Jack Masselin, and I’m not awed, but I’m almost embarrassed because I know this boy in a way other people don’t, and he knows me.

  Eventually, our heads right themselves, our eyes move up and find each other, and I don’t have to wonder what I look like to him, because I can see me there, in the reflection of his pupils, as if he really has stored me away and is carrying me around with him.

  He says, “Huh.” And breathes out like he’s been holding it all this time.

  “Yeah.” I try to be funny, because this world is still new to me and I’m still finding my footing. I say, “I mean, it didn’t exactly shake the earth.” And my voice trembles, just a touch.

  But the thing is it did. It really did. It shook the damn pants off it.

  We are doing it. This is happening. We are meeting and changing the world, his world and mine.

  My body is like a single nerve ending from head to toe. Everything feels alive and more. My heart is opening, like the heart of Rappaccini’s daughter, Beatrice, when she meets young Giovanni after he wanders into her garden. As I stand there, I can almost feel it unfold, petal by petal, beat by beat.

  I say, “I love you.”

  She says, “I love you too.” And then she laughs. “It’s kind of crazy. I mean you.”

  “I know. What the hell?”

  She covers her mouth with one hand, but her eyes are shining. I’m thinking about a field of grass on a summer day. I’m thinking about the sun and being warmed from the inside and being warmed from the outside.

  I take her hand under the gray-blue sky and I’m home.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  Holding Up the Universe comes from my heart, as well as from my own loss and fear and pain, and from real people who are dear to me. Those people—along with many others—help hold up my universe. I wouldn’t have been able to write this book without them.

  First and foremost, thank you to my readers around the world, who have become my family. (#ReadersAreLife) I love you epically and eternally.

  Thank you to my incomparably brilliant, bright, bright place of an agent, Kerry Sparks, who is the savviest, wisest, most delightful human on the planet, and who is always, always looking out for me in every way. Thanks, too, to the entire team at Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. You have turned my world from black-and-white to Technicolor.

  Thank you to my lovely-beyond-lovely editor, Allison Wortche, and every single one of her impeccable instincts. She doesn’t wield a red pen, she wields a magic wand. And thank you to my fantastically superb UK editor, Ben Horslen, for all his genius.

  Thank you to everyone at Knopf, Random House Children’s Books, and Penguin UK for their kindness, support, and immense belief in me, and for being the very best there is. With endless thanks to Barbara Marcus, Jenny Brown, Melanie Nolan, Dominique Cimina, Jillian Vandall, Karen Greenberg, Kim Lauber, Laura Antonacci, Pam White, Jocelyn Lange, Zack O’Brien, Barbara Perris, Alison Impey, Stephanie Moss, Rosamund Hutchison, and Clare Kelly. And with thanks to David Drummond for the utterly spectacular cover.

  Big thanks to my superstar assistant, Briana Bailey, for all she is and does, to the incredible Shelby Padgett (who is, I swear, part wizard), and to Lara Yacoubian, WBA forever. Also to Letty Lopez, and all the Germ Magazine editors, directors, writers, and contributors, with extra appreciation and hugs to Briana, Shelby, and Jordan Gripenwaldt. You make me lovely and you make me proud of all we—you—have done.

  I di
d not have to be rescued from my house the way Libby was, but I have struggled with weight issues and anxiety over the years—particularly when I was Libby’s age—and I know what it feels like to be bullied. In addition to my own experience, I drew on the experiences of family and friends, who also understand firsthand what Libby has gone through.

  I am not personally face-blind, but I have family members who are. My teenage cousin has learned to recognize the people in his life, not by faces, but by the important things like “how nice they are and how many freckles they have.” Thank you to him for helping me see as he sees.

  And huge thanks to the remarkable—and prosopagnosic—Jacob Hodes, who gave the book a meticulous going-over. He offered me vital feedback on what worked and what didn’t, as well as invaluable suggestions for how to make Jack’s journey as real and authentic as possible.

  Thank you to the Prosopagnosia Research Centers and Dr. Brad Duchaine, of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, for his help and generosity. He, along with Dr. Irving Biederman, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of Southern California, patiently answered all my many questions.

  I also want to acknowledge Chuck Close and Oliver Sacks, whose varied works have provided inspiration and information, and members of the Yahoo Face Blindness–Prosopagnosia group, who offered such fascinating, illuminating insight.

  Thank you to Dr. William Rice III, of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, for his medical expertise, and my beloved cousin Learyn von Sprecken, engineering dynamo, who helped Jack and me with his mind-blowing projects.

  Thanks also to:

  My early readers, Louis Kapeleris, Angelo Surmelis, Garen Thomas, Nic Stone, Becky Albertalli, and devoted All the Bright Places fan Margaret Harrison, whose blurb for Holding Up the Universe would read: “To be honest, after All the Bright Places, I was kind of waiting for someone to get hit by a truck or something on the last page. I’m glad no one got hit by a truck.” And my fellow YA author, hero, and friend Kerry Kletter. Not only is she a terrific writer, she’s a terrific editor. She arrived at one of the most pivotal moments in this book’s life and stayed by my side through it, offering love and some much-needed hand-holding, as well as the smartest eleventh-hour edits an exhausted writer could ever hope for. I will always love you for what you gave to Jack, Libby, and me.

 
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