Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

  “Hey, Bailey. I remember you.”

  “I’m just so glad you’re back.” And then she throws her arms around me, and I accidentally suck in some of her hair, which tastes like a cross between peaches and bubble gum. Exactly how you think Bailey Bishop’s hair would taste.

  We pull apart and she stands there grinning, eyes wide, dimples shining, and everything about her is too bright. Five years ago, Bailey was my friend, as in an actual friend and not one I made up. Five years is a long time. We barely had anything in common back then, so I’m not sure what we’ll have in common now. But I tell myself, Be nice. This could be the only friend you will ever make.

  She calls out to a girl walking past, and says to me, “I want you to meet Jayvee. Jayvee, this is Libby.”

  Jayvee says, “Hiya. What’s shakin’?” Her hair is cut in a swingy black bob, and she’s wearing a T-shirt that reads, MY REAL BOYFRIEND IS FICTIONAL.

  Bailey is beaming like a lighthouse. “Jayvee moved here two years ago from the Philippines.” I wait for her to tell Jayvee this is my first year back at school after being a shut-in, but all she says is “Libby’s new too.”

  Fourth period is advanced chemistry with Monica Chapman. Science teacher. Wife. And the woman who slept with my dad. As a rule, teachers are easier to recognize than students because of these three things: there are fewer of them than there are of us; even the younger ones dress older than we do; and we have license to stare at them on a daily basis (i.e., more time for me to learn their identifiers).

  None of this helps me with Chapman. I’ve never had class with her before, and everything about her is young and also ordinary. I mean you’d hope that the woman your dad decides to cheat with on your mom is so remarkable that even a person who doesn’t remember anyone would recognize her. But there’s nothing about her that stands out. Which means she could be anywhere.

  I choose a seat at the back, by the window, and someone sits down next to me. There’s this look people get when they know you and when they expect you to know them, and he gives me this now.

  “Hey, man,” he says.


  At some point, this cluster of girls breaks apart and one of them walks to the whiteboard at the front of the room. She looks around at everyone, introduces herself, sees me, and her face freezes, just for an instant, before she remembers to smile.

  After everyone settles, Monica Chapman starts lecturing about the different branches of chemistry, and all I can think about is the branch she’s not mentioning—the one that’s responsible for her affair with my dad.

  The way I found out was Dusty. He was the one who saw the text on Dad’s phone. It was just sitting there, where anyone could see it. Dad had walked away, and Dusty was looking for things to collect—like me, he’s always collecting things—and later he said to me, “I thought Mom’s name was Sarah.”

  “It is Sarah.”

  “Then who’s Monica?”

  So the bastard didn’t even bother to change her name on the phone. There it was, plain as day, Monica. To make matters worse, it wasn’t his regular phone, but some phone he must have bought just to talk to her. Figuring out which Monica took a little more work, but you can take my word for it, it’s her.

  Right now she starts in on physical chemistry, and I raise my hand.

  “Do you have a question, Jack?”

  I think, Do I ever. If I can get the next words out of my mouth, it will be a miracle, because I feel like my chest is stuffed into my throat.

  “Actually, I just wanted to tell you what I know about physical chemistry.”

  The guy next to me—who seems to be Damario Raines—nods at his desk, and some of the girls turn around to see what I’m going to say. They are identical to each other, and I wonder if they want to look exactly the same or if they even know they do. They’re expecting me to say something clever. I can see it on them. Besides, no one else knows about what happened between Chapman and my dad. Marcus doesn’t even know, and I want to keep it that way.

  “Go ahead, Jack.” Chapman’s voice sounds perfectly normal, breezy and clipped, with a hint of Michigan or maybe Wisconsin.

  “Physical chemistry applies theories of physics to study chemical systems, which include reaction kinetics, surface chemistry, molecular quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and electrochemistry.”

  I smile this dazzling smile, one that competes with the overhead lights and the sun beating in the windows. I am going to blind her with this fucking smile so she won’t ever be able to see my dad again. A girl two chairs over is grinning at me, chin in her hands, but the others look confused and a little disappointed. The Guy Who Seems to Be Damario says to his desk, “Man.” And I can tell in that one word what a letdown I am.

  “Actually, I think that’s my favorite, electrochemistry. There’s just something about a good chemical reaction, am I right?” And then I wink at Monica Chapman, who—for the next twenty seconds—goes speechless.

  As soon as she can talk again, she gives us a pop quiz to “judge our aptitude,” but really I think she’s doing it to mess with me, because she grades them at her desk and then says, “Jack Masselin. Pass these back.”

  And it is on.

  I get out of my seat and walk to the front of the room and take the quizzes from her. And then I stand there for a minute, trying to figure out what to do. The class is looking at me as I look at them. There are four kids who are definite IDs. Three, I’m fairly sure I don’t know and am not supposed to know (but I’m not completely, totally sure). Eight are in the gray zone—better known as the danger zone.

  Now, I can march up and down the aisles, trying to match the names of people I know with the faces. I can take all the shit that would be thrown at me as soon as it’s clear that I don’t know who everyone is. Prick. Dumbass.

  Or I can do what I’m doing now—hold up the stack of papers and say, “Who here really wants to see what you got?” It was a pop quiz, after all, so it’s not like any of us prepared for it. For good measure, I flip through the pages, and most of the grades are C, D, C-, C. As expected, no one raises a hand. “Who would rather take this opportunity to promise Mrs. Chapman you’ll do better from here on out?” Almost all hands go up. These hands are attached to arms that are attached to torsos that are attached to necks that are attached to faces, which swim at me, foreign and unrecognizable. It’s like being at a costume party every single day where you’re the only one without a costume, but you’re still expected to know who everyone is.

  “If you’re interested, I’m going to set them right here.” I drop them onto an empty desk at the front and take my seat.


  When the bell rings, Monica Chapman says, “Jack, I’d like a word with you.”

  I walk right on out the door like I don’t hear, and go directly to the school office, where I tell them I need to change to the other advanced chemistry class, even though it’s taught by Mr. Vernon, who is at least one hundred and deaf in one ear. The secretary starts in with “I’m not sure we can switch you because we’ll have to reorganize part of your schedule…”

  For a minute, I’m tempted to say forget it, I’ll stay right where I am. Believe me, I’m more than happy to torment Monica Chapman for a semester. But I think about my dad losing his hair, about how paper-thin the chemo left him, about how frail he looked, like he might crumble away in front of us. I remember what it felt like to almost lose him. There’s a part of me that still hates him, that maybe will always hate him, but he’s my dad, after all, and I don’t want to hate him any more than I already do. Besides, I actually like chemistry, and why should I ruin that for myself?

  I lean on the counter. I give the secretary a smile that says I’ve saved this up for you and only you. “I’m sorry if it’s inconvenient, and I don’t want to be a pain in the ass, but if it helps, I know we can get Mrs. Chapman to sign off on this.”

  I decide to skip lunch. The thing that comes after it is gym, and I don’t think there i
s a heavy girl on this planet, no matter how secure she is, who doesn’t dread gym.

  In the grand scheme of things, today could be worse. No one’s banned me from the playground. So far I’ve only been mooed at and laughed at four or five times, and stared at a couple hundred times. A lot of people haven’t looked twice at me, and a lot of them are treating me like anyone else. I’ve made at least one, maybe two, potential friends. I haven’t had a single panic attack.

  But the hardest thing is something I didn’t expect—seeing people I used to know, people I grew up with, and knowing that while I sat in my house, they got older and went to school and made friends and had lives. It’s like I’m the only one who stopped.

  So I don’t feel like eating. Instead I sit outside the cafeteria in the parking lot and read my favorite book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. It’s about a girl named Mary Katherine Blackwood. Most everyone in her family is dead, and she lives with her sister, holed up away from society, trapped in her house, not by her weight but by a horrible thing she did once upon a time. The people of her village tell legends about her and are afraid of her and sometimes sneak up to the house to try to catch a glimpse of her. I’m pretty sure I understand Mary Katherine in a way no one else does.

  I read for a few minutes, and then I close my eyes and tilt my head back. It’s a warm, bright day, and even though I haven’t been housebound in a while, I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of sunshine.


  Gym is worse than I imagined.

  Of course it’s Seth Powell who says, “There’s this game I read about.”

  Or maybe he saw it online, he can’t remember.

  “It’s called Fat Girl Rodeo.”

  And he’s laughing like it’s the funniest damn thing he’s ever heard. He laughs so hard he almost falls off the bleachers. “And what you do is you go up to some fat girl and you throw yourself around her like you’re riding a bull…” He leans forward, covering his face, and then he kicks the bleachers three times like it’s going to help him get his breath. When he finally looks up again, his eyes have gone squinty and wet. “And you hold on as tight as you can, really squeeze the shit out of her…” He doubles over and rocks back and forth. I look at Kam and Kam looks at me like, What a dumb motherfucker.

  Seth sits up, shaking all over. “And whoever…” (These last words are the hardest to get out.) “…holds on longest…” (He’s barely breathing.) “…wins.”

  I say, “Wins what?”

  “The game.”

  “Yeah, but what do they win?”

  “The game, man. They win the game.”

  “But is there a prize?”

  “What do you mean a prize?”

  Seth is pretty stupid, if you want to know the truth. I sigh like I’m carrying the world’s burdens, like I’m freakin’ Atlas.

  “If you go to the state fair and you play the shooting gallery, they give you, like, a stuffed panda or some such shit.”

  “When I was eight.” Seth rolls his eyes at Kam.

  I rake my hands through the lion fro, making it bigger and badder. I talk very, very slowly, the way my dad does to foreigners. “So when you went to the shooting gallery at age eight, they gave you something when you won.”

  Kam takes a swig of the flask he always carries, but he doesn’t offer us any. He snorts. “Like he ever won.”

  Seth is looking at me, but he reaches out and slaps Kam on the side of his head. I’ll say this for him, he’s got good aim.

  Seth squints at me. “What’s your point?”

  “What do you get if you win the rodeo?”

  “You win.” He holds up his hands like what more is there.

  It could go on this way for hours, but Kam says, “Losing battle, Mass. Let it go.”

  I look at Kam now. “Have you heard of Fat Girl Rodeo?”

  He stands, takes another swig from the flask, and for a second I think he’s about to offer it to me. Then he caps it and shoves it back into his pocket. “I have now.”

  And suddenly he’s out of the bleachers and on the ground and jogging toward some girl, who looks like she’s wearing an inner tube under her shirt. I don’t recognize her, but of course I don’t recognize anyone. Except for the inner tube, she could be my own mother, for all I know.

  Seth’s identifier isn’t the fact that he’s the only black kid in school with a Mohawk. His identifier is his stupid laugh. Because he’s an idiot, he’s always laughing, and I’d know that laugh anywhere. With Kam, it’s the fact that he has this white-blond hair that makes him look like an albino. He’s the only person I know with hair that color.

  I have no idea who this girl with the inner tube is, and the whole time I’m watching, I’m thinking Kam’s not really going to do it. He’s just trying to make us think he’s going to do it.

  And then he’s doing it. He’s wrapped around the girl like cellophane, and at first you can tell maybe she’s happy because it’s Dave Kaminski, but the longer he holds on, the more upset she gets, till it looks like she’s going to start screaming or crying or both.

  I stand up. I want to tell him to stop. Seth’s eyes are fixed on Dave and the girl, and his jaw goes slack before he starts pounding on his knee going, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.” And then he’s laughing and says something to me that sounds like “You know she wants it.” And the whole time I’m thinking to myself, Say something , douchebag.

  But I don’t. And right before she loses it, Kam lets her go. Then he breaks into a victory lap around the track.

  “Fifteen seconds,” Seth says under his breath. “It’s a goddamn world’s record.”

  Libby Strout is fat.

  I am locked in the bathroom after school, black Sharpie squeaking against the ugly, ugly wall. There is an unused tampon lying on the floor and an empty lip gloss in the sink, even though the trash can is literally right there. A sign on one of the stalls says OUT OF ORDER because someone dropped (shoved) a math book in the toilet. It smells like air freshener and cigarettes in here, among other things. That old saying about girls being sugar and spice and everything nice? Not so true. All you have to do is visit the third-floor bathroom of MVB High School in Amos, Indiana, to figure that out.

  Someone is pounding on the door.

  I reach up one arm and write in thick letters as large as I can so that everyone will see.

  Libby Strout is fat.

  Fat and ugly.

  She will never get laid.

  No one will ever love her.

  I catch sight of myself in the mirror, and my face is the color of beets, the ones Mom used to call “nice vegetables,” even though she knew there was nothing nice about them. Mom always did that—made things nicer than they were.

  Libby Strout is so fat they had to destroy her house to get her out.

  Word for word, these are the things I overheard Caroline Lushamp and Kendra Wu saying about me in gym, as the other girls stood around and listened. And laughed. I add in one or two other lines, the meanest things I can think of, so that I don’t have to hear it from anyone else. I write it so they don’t have to. This way, there is nothing they can say about me that I haven’t said myself.

  Libby Strout is the fattest teen in America.

  Libby Strout is a liar.

  I step back.

  These are the truest words of all, and until I see them I’m okay. But something about seeing them there, like someone else wrote them, makes me catch my breath. Too far, Libbs, I think.

  Yes, I’m fat.

  Yes, they had to partially destroy my house.

  Maybe no boy will love me or want to touch me ever, even in a dark room, even after an apocalypse when all the skinny girls have been wiped off the earth by some horrible plague. Maybe one day I can be thinner than I am now and have a boyfriend who loves me, but I’ll still be a liar. I’ll always be a liar.

  Because in about three minutes I’m going to open the door and walk down that hall and tell myself wh
at did I expect, I knew this would happen, it was never going to go differently than this, they don’t matter, high school doesn’t matter, none of this matters, it’s what’s inside that counts. It’s what lies beyond this. All those things they like to tell you. Besides, I stopped feeling a long time ago.

  Except this is a lie too.


  Sixty seconds later:

  I walk out of the bathroom and bump right into a girl almost as big as I am. She’s bawling her eyes out, and my first instinct is to get out of her way. She says, “What were you doing in there? Did you lock the door?” Actually, she shouts it.

  “It must have gotten stuck. Are you okay?” I talk softly and calmly, hoping she’ll follow my lead.

  She’s crying and hiccupping hard, and it takes her a minute. “Bastards.” This is a little less loud.

  I don’t have to ask what, only who. I can imagine by the size of her what’s happened. “Who?” I ask, even though I feel like I don’t know anyone at this school.

  “Dave Kaminski and his bastard friends.” She pushes by me to the sink, where she bends over, washing her face, wetting down her hair, which is wound in tight black ringlets. She’s wearing a Nirvana shirt and one of those candy necklaces you eat. I grab a paper towel and hand it to her. “Thanks.” She pats at her face. “Dave Kaminski grabbed me, and when I told him to let go he wouldn’t.”

  The Dave Kaminski I knew was a scrawny twelve-year-old with white hair who once stole his dad’s Johnnie Walker and brought it to school.

  “Where are they?”

  “Bleachers.” She’s still hiccupping, but not as bad. She glances up at the wall and starts reading. “What the…”

  My eyes follow hers. “I know, right? Look on the bright side. At least that’s not your name on the wall.”

  Kam’s still running laps when these two girls come walking out of the school. One of them hangs back, but the other marches across the football field. She glances up at us for a second, and our eyes meet. And then she heads straight for Kam.

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