“You said you were quitting,” a familiar voice calls to me. Instead of looking for the source, I dig the heels of my gray high tops even further into the yellowed and dying grass. It’s almost an act of defense. I don’t need to look up to know who it is calling me out. I don’t need to turn my gaze to see those disapproving yet slightly humored brown eyes. I have them memorized.

After a few moments of obduracy, however, I look anyway and find exactly who I was expecting. My best friend, Phoebe, hand on her hip, cheek-length hair in her eyes. The sun behind her head is obscuring her face in shadow. Nevertheless, I can almost see the abject look of criticism hanging off her mouth.

“Did I?” I reply flippantly, my eyes trailing to the blackened edge of my cigarette. I flick it into a patch of dirt next to me, getting rid of the burnt and ashy end so I can take a cleaner drag. I look away from Phoebe, up at the shadowy underside of the bleachers above me, at the gum, graffiti, and grime. I sigh; letting out a stream of vapor. “I don’t recall. That’s been cancelled.”

“Har har,” she mocks and the corner of my mouth turns up as I take another pull from my cigarette.

“We are sitting in the cafeteria today, remember?” she asks, crouching down so her face can come out of shadow. She brushes her hair out of her eyes, showing me a familiar freckled nose and eyelashes that reach the tops of her cheekbones. I groan as it all comes back to me. She’s right, I’d forgotten. Princess Elle has big prom plans to discuss. Which means, as decreed, all of her loyal subjects must sit in attendance at our usual table for lunch today.

I shake my head, almost begging, “We aren’t even going.”

“She doesn’t know that.”

“She’s going to find out in less than two weeks.”

“But until then . . .”

Phoebe doesn’t finish the thought and I groan once more, pushing myself up off the ground with the heels of my hands. I abandon my dead, half-smoked cigarette in the dirt among the scattered few that haven’t yet been blown away in the wind since I tossed them there throughout the year. Looking at them now, it is hard to believe how often I have secluded myself here since the school year started. It is even harder to believe that the school year is almost over. High school itself is almost over.

It seemed like a lifetime ago that I first made my way through the halls of Bay View High. If I close my eyes I can practically see myself now. Shorter, wiry, glasses instead of contacts. It was long before I knew anything about anything, and much longer before I could even admit that to myself. Back then I was convinced I understood. Back then I had to. In truth,  my virtual assurance came about as a result of having nothing at all. Because when I close my eyes, and picture the small boy who was much too confident for his size, he is all alone. No one stands by his side.

Not like there is now..

Phoebe is by far the most interesting person I have ever met. Chin-length dark hair and two piercings in each ear. Her all-black wardrobe and extreme aversion to everything bright and sunny despite living in a bay-side city isn’t a statement or anything. She isn’t trying to be goth or different or extreme, she is just busy being herself despite what everyone else thinks. Even now as she reaches out to help me gather my things on the grass I see that she has one fingernail painted a different color than the rest, just like always. I am warmed by a bravery that I know she has to work to achieve.

The rest of our friends, however, tend to be the opposite of Phoebe and I in most every way. They soak in the sun and live for the conventional. They are the kids who watch 90210 and visit Ocean Beach every weekend. They are the kids who blast *NSYNC with the top down and who make trips to the Bay Mall that are almost more regular than trips to school. They have money and glamor and smiles on their faces that seem to come so effortlessly compared to the ones that Phoebe and I have to plaster on when we wake up and peel off each night before we go to bed.

“What’s that?” Phoebe asks as she hands me my backpack, I throw it over my shoulder and see what she is pointing to. It’s a medium-sized, white cardboard box on the ground next to where I was sitting.

“It’s my cap and gown,” I say, raising an eyebrow at her, mildly confused, “they are handing them out in the counseling center, didn’t you get your—oh . . .” and my face falls as I remember that Phoebe isn’t sure if she is graduating or not yet. Junior year was a hard one for both of us. Phoebe more so than I.  She fell behind, failed a couple of required classes. Now she makes them up through packets and after-school work. She still has a lot to do, but we are nearing the end of the line here with graduation in less than a month.

“I’m sure you’ll catch up. How is that all going?”

“Fine,” she says, “and thanks.”

“No problem.”

“History is almost done, that’s easy. It’s math that I am struggling with . . .” she trails off, telling me about logarithms and matrices and things she can’t begin to possibly understand.

We are walking back to the school now as she speaks, kicking up dirt and taking our time. The way I figure it, the longer it takes us to head back across the football field towards the cafeteria means the less time that we have to sit and listen to Elle preach to us about her plans with Bryce two Saturdays from now. Plans that I already know she will demand we not only assist in cultivating, but that we also accompany her on.

“I’m sure Sarah would be more than willing to help you with math,” I say, offering up my sister as an unwilling tutor, though I really am sure it wouldn’t be an issue. Sarah likes Phoebe, my whole family does in fact. Sometimes I think maybe even more than they like me. It’s more than possible. “I’ll ask her this weekend.”

“Saturday is her birthday, remember?” Phoebe reminds me and I nod, closing my eyes tightly to push the embarrassment away. My own sister. How could I forget that, too? I didn’t mean to, sometimes I just got so wrapped up in my own head that even the biggest of details slipped through the cracks. To most people, including my own family, it’s madness. It’s seen as selfish and indifferent. The repeating of tales already told a hundred times, the forgetting of important dates and events. I was the owner of a one track mind that caused me to be so consumed with my own thoughts that I tended forget about others altogether. Phoebe saw through that. To her, it was one of the many things about me that makes me unbearably me.

“Oh yeah, you’re coming right?”

“To the party?”

“Yeah.”

“Probably not,” she says, shrugging, “it’s a family thing.”

I give her a look that doesn’t need words. One that reminds her she’s more family to me than Sarah or Ezra or David or even my parents ever have been. She smiles at me warmly. A rare smile that I know isn’t forced or contrived. It’s a smile that we both share, one we save for each other.

I hear the rustle and bustle of the school cafeteria before we even open the big double doors that lead in from the back. The sound of it all ignites a sharp pain behind my eyes.  As I put my hand around the handle I mentally pull a hood over my head that deflects the chaos. At the same time I feel a happy little mask slip over lower half of my face, sliding all the way up to the tops cheek bones. It doesn’t reach my eyes. That is not possible. The truth is always visible in the eyes, no matter how hard you try to pretend.

The cafeteria is a large octagon shaped room with long tables stemming out from six sides. The two walls without tables contain the kitchen area where food is made and distributed to students who can afford lunch vouchers. Triangular panes of glass reach up from the top of each wall and meet in the center above our heads. There are electrical window panes hung horizontally along the glass roof. They are currently left half-open as to let in just enough sun for us to soak. As if by instinct, I turn towards the east side of the cafeteria, opposite of the end with the kitchen, adjacent to the doors that lead to the art hall, and Phoebe follows me. There our friends wait, table pushed up against one of the walls without a window. Technically we aren’t supposed to move the tables at all. Technically.

Finn, Phoebe,” a high voice cheers and a bottle blonde wearing an orange tank top flags us down as she jumps up onto her tippy-toes. “Where the hell have you been?! Lunch is almost over! Hurry, hurry!”

Elle doesn’t actually want to know where we were. She doesn’t even give us room enough to come up with a pathetic excuse for our actions before she continues on like we have been there the entire time. No recap, no consideration. The rest of our friends stare on, enthralled and excited. Making me think once again, for probably the millionth time, that maybe Elle isn’t the problem. Maybe I am.

Phoebe and I take our usual seats at the end of the table opposite of the wall. Close enough to hear them, but far enough away that when we whisper silent comebacks to each other none of them can hear us. It’s a symbiotic relationship really.

“That way if we leave by ten, it gives us more than enough time to drive over to Pier 26 and take my dad’s boat out onto the marina.”

At this comment Ed, a tall jockey-type boy with red hair and a sea of freckles pipes in, “How long will we have the boat out? My curfew is two, and I am not sure how long Stacie’s parents will let her stay out either.”

Elle brushes her hair behind her shoulder, turning to look at Ed square in the eye, “Well, daddy was mentioning that it might be nice if we just kicked back on the boat all night. There are more than enough beds—” she squeals this, and anybody with half a brain can tell what she is hinting at, “—and we can all just leave our cars at the docks.”

It is just like Elle to put all of this on her dad. It is even more like her to assume that every single one us has a date or will be attending the dance. Additionally, the notion that each us has a car or a even a ride home is almost insulting. She has known Phoebe and I long enough to know our circumstances aren’t nearly as privileged as hers or the rest of our friends.

I look away from Elle and the rest of the teenagers around me and turn towards Phoebe with the intention to make a quiet and sarcastic remark about what was just spoken. Instead, I find her attention is elsewhere. I follow her gaze across the cafeteria over to one of the tables by the kitchen. There sits Jaime, the dreaded ex-boyfriend of my best friend. His long, tan, and tattooed arm is draped loosely over the small dark shoulders of a girl I do not know. Her face is small, half the size of Jamie’s, but her nose is just as big as his. They are both laughing at something. It looks like a scene out of a movie, much too real to be true. Considering the circumstances. Considering he and Phoebe had broken up less than a month ago.

Phoebe must have felt my eyes on her because without turning she asks in a quiet and broken voice, “Do you know her?”

I shake my head and, realizing Phoebe cannot see me, reply, “No. I don’t think I have ever seen her before.”

I swallow hard as I realize what is happening and put my hand softly on Phoebe’s shoulder. It’s a small gesture, however in this moment surround by our friends and the rest of the cafeteria it is all I can do to show her that I understand and feel her. “Are you okay?” I ask and as  the words escape me I realize how dumb the question is. Of course she isn’t okay. Her boyfriend of three years is melting all over another girl. That’s not something one can process in under a minute.

However, Phoebe doesn’t insult my stupidity and answers with a broken voice, “Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I be. I broke up with him.”

She is dismissing her emotions and I can tell. Trying to convince herself that she is not justified in having them. “That doesn’t mean things have to be okay. This would be hard for anyone. No matter how the relationship ended. You loved him.”

“Yes, but he couldn’t love me,” Phoebe turns to look at me and I can tell that her mask is starting to fall off. I know she believes that. I know that she thinks her broken parts are too much for any one person to handle. That she believes the pieces are too large for anyone to pick up but herself. She has more reason to believe this truth than I do to turn her into a liar. So I remain silent, my eyes unwavering and intensely supportive.

“Finn,” Elle calls out, “Phoebe?”

Our heads turn unanimously. As we fall back in line with our friends the realization that none of them saw or even cared about our little exchange was both palpable and uncomfortable. Reminding us once again that it is just easier to just pretend that everything is okay.

“Yeah, what’s up?” Phoebe asks before I can even open my mouth. She is better at this game than I am. Which means it is good that she responded before me. I might have said something I regretted and then had to take a week of apologizing before I was finally allowed back in to the inner sanctum. Best to keep quiet. Nod and smile. I’d deal with the negative repercussions of my entity after I disappointed everyone by not going to prom.

“Thoughts? Prom?” Elle asks simply, completely unaware that the two of us didn’t hear the entire last minute of her conversation.

“We think you guys should have a say in this just as much as anyone.” It’s Andrea who says this and I am not the least bit surprised. Of the four kids Phoebe and I regularly hang out with she is who we both considered closest to the pair of us. Perhaps she doesn’t fully understand Phoebe and I, that we are different from the rest. Sometimes, on the other hand, it seems like she almost does, or that she is trying. Although mostly she is just like the others, forgetful and oblivious. It appears this is not one of those times. I smile at her, and she grins back, showing braces that match her brown pig-tails and hair bobbles a little too collectively.

“I honestly don’t know if I’m going,” Phoebe says and it’s as if someone drops an anvil on my chest. Elle gasps, Ed huffs, Andrea pouts, and Stefan jeers at the hilarity. I, on the other hand, almost slip away into an existential crisis. Complete disbelief washes over me as I turn and look at my best friend, whose face is maskless, telling me she couldn’t honestly care less about what she has just done. Complete disruption of an ecosystem is one way to put it. An act of war is another.

“Excuse me?” Elle declares, putting a hand like a claw gently over her heart. It’s almost as though she is holding the broken and violated pieces of it together.

“I dunno Elle,” Phoebe begins and I watch as she slips further way from who she pretends to be in front of our friends, closer to who she is when we are alone in my bedroom. Her shoulders are slouched, her eyes narrowed, her lip curled, and her voice a complete octave lower than normal.

“It all just seems so meaningless and arbitrary to me, if I am being honest. Prom? I get the fantasy for the four of you, since your whole lives are basically a game of make believe. One magical night with that one magical person. Great. Good for you, you know? I think, however, that naturally, your conceited asses seem to have forgotten that Findlay and I don’t have our very own Price Charmings to whisk us away to the ball in a pumpkin. No, you see, Jaime and I broke up not even a whole menstrual cycle ago, and Findlay over here has been single since dinosaurs walked. Additionally, even if we wanted to go to prom, which I don’t, we couldn’t afford it since our daddies don’t have the luxury of paying for our nose jobs. So thanks for asking, but I’ll have to heavily consider my options and get back to you. I hope that doesn’t disrupt your plans too much.”

“What the fu—”

Phoebe is standing before I can even register what has just occurred, and soon after I am right at her tail, scrambling to throw my backpack over my shoulder. From behind us, I can hear  Elle shouting obscenities, demanding an apology. This isn’t the first time this has happened. The first time one of us became a bit emotionally unhinged and took it out on our friends. Not that anything she said was false or unwarranted. Elle was absolutely being oblivious and insensitive.  Although, man alive was it out of the great wide blue.

“What were you thinking?” I begin and Phoebe holds up a single hand, signaling that she needs a moment before opening her mouth once again. She uses her other hand to push open the cafeteria door into the art hall. It closes behind us and Elle’s screeching voice is muted for good, fading away into mindless hum of voices that floats towards us from behind closed lunch room doors.

I stay silent, knowing that if I am quiet enough for long enough this pot she’s holding will eventually boil over. Anything I say now will just turn the heat up. So we walk and I wait from behind. Slowly but surely eyeing the slope of her shoulders, watching as they soften from a hard and obtuse angle down into a smooth and curved line.

“Elle talks a lot about life, you know?” Phoebe finally begins, her voice like fire and ice all at once, “She thinks she gets it, but she just doesn’t. She doesn’t have the faintest idea what real life is like. She’s never struggled. Not like we have. My dad works so fucking hard to give me a good life. And you; you have two parents and even they have grind their asses to the bone to provide for your brothers and sisters. Still, the Elles of the world have their lives handed to them on a golden platter. It’s nor fair.”

She isn’t wrong. It’s almost shameful. I’ve seen it first hand, in my own life and hers. It’s hard for her to watch her dad come home to their one bedroom apartment and crash on his sofa bed after a long day of work with eyes empty and back bent. He does everything for her and has not even a room of his own to recover in. My parents have it a little bit easier, however with five kids under one roof nothing is ever really easy, is it?

We are down the art hall now and Phoebe makes a hard left as the bell rings. Kids begin to emerge from classrooms with books in hand and we work our way through the maze. Phoebe’s walk is hard and determined. I can tell that she is just beginning. The fact that we are heading to the language hall and not the science hall where her class is located tells me that the end to this tirade is far from over.

Eventually we find ourselves at the top of the stairwell that leads to the old woodshop classroom above the gym. The doors boarded up now and locked, used for storage. No one comes up here, or at least, no one is supposed to. The story is that some basketball player kid got his hand chopped off back in the early sixties and they had to cancel the class due to a lawsuit. The idiot lost his scholarship, couldn’t play ball anymore. No one really knows, though. Just one of those common high school folklores. The abandoned area now smells faintly of marijuana and menthol. We settle on the small landing at the foot of the padlocked door.

“Do you think she even remembered that Jaime and I broke up?” Phoebe asks, that edge in her voice finally gone. It is replaced with a dull fringe that mirrors pain and wondering. She’s kicking off the treasured and used Doc Martin’s her dad got her for her 15th birthday, and peeling away her eye liner with a shirt sleeve, making herself comfortable. Readying herself for the long conversation.

“You know Elle,” I say, pulling loosely at the laces of my own shoes, settling in. I put my backpack on the stair two below me and look up at my best friend. It’s a cop out really. An easy way to validate Phoebe and her feelings without talking any shit. I didn’t want to feed that bird. Not now. Not while she is like this. It is one thing to mock begrudgingly in passing, when it doesn’t matter and the moment can pass in an instant. Now however, when it’s tied to emotions and pain, I can’t bring myself to say the things I’ve said in hushed whispers one hundred times before. Elle is selfish, she’s ignorant and spoiled. It’s her world and we are all just lucky to be living in it. Even if it’s true. Honesty won’t get us anywhere right now.

“You are holding back,” Phoebe says, her eyes dark and sanguine. It’s just like her to read me like the back of her hand, to know my thoughts just as well as her own. I smirk at her and she almost smiles back. Almost. She doesn’t press me any further before continuing.

“Twenty-five days. That’s all we have left. Twenty five days till we walk through these atrocious halls for the very last time. It should be exciting, don’t you think? High school has never been particularly pleasant for other of us. Still I find every day that draws us nearer to the end a simple and poignant reminder that I have no idea what the hell I am doing with my life.”

“No one does,” I cut in and Phoebe allows my disturbance before biting back.

“You do,” Phone sighs, “Elle does, Andrea and Ed do.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I begun, “but I’m pretty sure Stefan’s still stuck in the third grade.”

It’s an attempt to make her laugh. However, behind glassy eyes, Phoebe glowers at me and I curl away. Now is not the time for funny jokes.

“Why did we stick around them for so long?” Phoebe asks and I am unsure of she is addressing me, herself, or the air.

“Because we all were in freshman theatre together. Day one, the day it all began.”

“The day it all ended, more like it,” she snaps back and that cuts a little. She doesn’t know this, and she never will, but I’m silently waiting for her to actually spill over. Talk about what is really going on instead of making pointed remarks about everyone and everything in her warpath. I know why she gets like this. Or rather, more accurately, I know why she has to, but it doesn’t make watching the affair any easier.

“Everything is falling apart,” Phoebe manages to say, breaking the silence once more. Finally, here in the confines of an abandoned stairway, her voice shatters completely into turmoil. I watch as the girl who tries so hard to keep herself together unravels before me in shredded ribbons. Fragments of a once resilient girl, now vanquished.

There is nothing I, or anyone else, can do but sit and watch her pick up the pieces.

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