Air of Uncaring

The goal is to make them believe I care. I probably should, but altruism has never been my strong suit. It’s not like I’m relieved that he died—I’m not a horrible person. I’m just… not very affected. I wouldn’t even say we had a real relationship. The past eight months have been us swinging together and apart between other people, other things. We connected because I was bored, and disconnected for the same reason.

His mom is sobbing on my shoulder like we know each other. I guess I understand. Only child, single mother. But the school gym is filled with her relatives and the entire student body; I’m not sure why I’m her first choice. Maybe she thinks I’m the person Daniel was closest to. I wasn’t, and I’m also not about to tell a demoted mother that her son and I didn’t do much more than smoke together during lunch break or steal condoms and peanut MnM’s from Walgreens. 

“Lavender, honey.” Daniel’s mom wipes her nose with the back of her hand. “Thank you for being so sweet. I really hope you come to the reception Sunday. This is just… Well, you know.”

“Of course,” I sniffle. “And I know what you mean; I can’t even believe this happened. Like, I just saw him a week ago, and now I’m never going to see him again.”

Her face looks like the top of a mountain before an avalanche. My phone rumbles between the bleachers and my leg. Daniel’s mom stands up. She looks like she may say something. She looks like she may cry again. Her hand on my shoulder, hesitating. She smells like unwashed sheets, premade meals dropped off from neighbors. I try to focus on the principal in the corner of my vision, talking about potential or transience or something. A few seconds pass and then the bleachers convulse as Daniel’s mom makes her way down. I adjust my skirt, free my phone. Two new messages from Sierra, my best friend who’s a year older than me. She’s already away from here, attending college two states over.

How’s it going? You okay?

I contemplate my answer to her messages as the principal talks about support group meeting times, hotline phone numbers. Other than some bad cramps, I’m doing fine. The crowd rustles. Phone hiding beneath a fold in my skirt, I check the time. 2:43. The bell usually rings in seventeen minutes. Are they going to ring it today? The memorial is substituting for last period, but having a bell seems a little insensitive, metaphoric.

“Lavender.” I feel the person knock into me before I hear their whisper. “We going?” Steven, a boy in my grade who is something like a friend, has a car and remembers Axe body spray at least eighty percent of the time – nearly a man. He’s glancing around like somebody is going to catch on, try to stop us before we’ve even moved.

“Yes,” I say. Forget Advil and a nap—anything to leave. I throw myself off the bench after Steven, almost get my foot stuck between rows, knock against two people as I try to regain footing, apologize, and then slide out of there. A few people frown at me and a few people give me sympathetic looks, but everyone else is glancing down at the screens in their laps, fidgeting.

After getting to the parking lot we both climb into Steven’s gold sedan. I pull trash out from under me and toss it into the backseat as Steven messes with the heater, the ignition. He loops around the school, twisting the radio up to mid-volume, just noisy enough to be distracting. It takes me a few minutes to notice I have a headache, one of those where you wake up with it so it’s constant, fading to background as the day passes.

“Where to?” Steven asks.

“Um, a park or something?” I press my palm against the cold window, and then to my forehead, a makeshift icepack.

“Fucking freezing,” Steven says. He glances over at me. “Should we just go to my house?”

“Um, could you actually take me home? I’m not feeling well.”

Steven glances at me again and nods. “Yeah, okay.” I don’t want to think about how sick I look.

I close my eyes, hear a buzz, and open my eyes again. Check my phone—blank. The vibrations are coming from Steven’s. He pulls the screen up to his face and replies to something. I squirm in my seat, trying to get comfortable. I tinker with the radio, switching the channels back and forth between the presets. The light in front of us turns red, but Steven is still cruising. I hesitate.

“You know,” I mention. “This is how he died.” I force my hands away from the radio. Steven looks up from his phone and brakes. We stop in the middle of the intersection. No one is around, but still. He smirks at me.

“Sorry,” he says. “I forgot how sensitive you are when it comes to reckless situations.”

I roll my eyes at him and lean back against the seat, my chest gasping, the rest of my body reminding me that it isn’t doing well either.

My phone hums. Right. I still need to reply to Sierra. What do I even say?

Daniel’s mom sat next to me and wouldn’t stop bawling.

Sierra’s text pops up a moment later.

Lol!

“Oh, yeah,” the doctor says, swiping a finger left and right on her tablet. I wait for her to elaborate, but she’s still absorbed in her screen.

It’s the day after the memorial—probably. Potentially two days after. When you’re sick, time moves differently, and all I know is I spent hours in bed with escalating pain. Crazy pain. Sort of like cramps if cramps felt like someone wearing spiky gloves was punching your abdominal organs, stabbing you, starting fires in your pelvis or uterus or something down in that general area. My mom took me to the doctor after the second time I passed out.

I shift on the examination table, paper rustling under me. Lifetimes pass. “What is it?” My voice sounds quieter than I anticipated.

The doctor tells me.

“What?” I wait for her to give me a real answer.

“It’s totally normal,” she says, still not looking at me. “Most of the time, these things don’t work out.” These things. She waves her hand in the air like she’s trying to swat a fly, shake away an idea. “How nice you didn’t have to deal with the situation yourself though. Choice was made for you. Stress-free.”

How nice.

How nice?

“You should probably come back in for a check-up in a month or so to make sure everything is all leveled out and back to normal. You can make an appointment with the receptionist at the front.”

I’m so sure she’s about to start lecturing me on grief or something that when she heads toward the door, I stay put. I’m waiting for the brochures on counseling, maybe a stupid pamphlet on mourning something you didn’t know you had to lose.

The doctor turns around, considers me. I notice her eyes for the first time: muddy green, a swamp. It feels like a contradiction to her placid smile.

“Was there anything else?” She asks. I gaze at her for a second, still dazed from the eye contact. I shake my head, then realize the doctor has refocused her attention on the screen in her hands.

“No,” I say.

The doctor exits the room and I follow; I make another appointment with the receptionist; I walk out of the clinic with my mom and I tell her it was nothing, a bad period, the pain should be gone in a day or two. She drives home and talks to me about something, but I have no idea what.

The next night my mom allows me to go out, but only because of extenuating circumstances. It’s Sunday—Daniel’s reception party thing is tonight—and I guess in my mom’s mind, mourning upstages health.

Waiting to be picked up, I contemplate my phone. No new messages—no new excuses to talk to someone without seeming too invested. I pull up Sierra’s contact and hesitate. Picture her at a study group or a dinner party, talking with her new college friends about anthropology or some other intellectual topic.

What’s up?

She doesn’t respond right away. The next time my phone dings it’s Steven, the only one who agreed to skip the reception. He tells me he’s here. An hour streams by in a haze of French fries and Chapstick and smoke. Body still hurting. I don’t feel like a solid object as much as something opaque, a shadow behind a waterfall.

“Do you wanna go hang out with people?” Steven asks. “Everyone’s bored.” We’re in his car, out of ideas. He’s driving with one hand, the other thrumming his leg.

“Sure,” I say. Steven’s phone lights up. He glances at it before making a sharp turn, and I feel like I’m playing Jello, my body swaying with the twisting sedan.

“You’ll have to get in the back,” he says. Everything feels way too close anyway. I try unbuckling my seatbelt; it doesn’t work. Steven reaches over, releases me.

“You okay?”

“Um,” I say. Lay my head on the dashboard, face down. Foggy, dizzy. “Maybe. Where are we going?”

Possibly he answers. I don’t know. There’s a shovel in my brain, banging, digging, exhuming something.

He stops, parks. I don’t try to follow him out of the car, but push open my door. It’s dark and cold and we’re in front of Daniel’s house—well, a few doors down, anyway. There’s a lot of cars. In this light all the houses look beige, half-dead flowers potted below small front windows, like the whole neighborhood coordinated.

I shut my eyes. Less than a minute or close to an hour passes before Steven’s back, others in tow. I tumble into the back seat and lean against the far window. While everybody climbs in, smooshes against me, I pull my phone from my pocket to text Sierra.

Help. I’m sick and surrounded by idiots.

She doesn’t respond right away.

“Fuck,” a girl sighs, pulling the passenger door shut. Steven’s girlfriend, I think. A sophomore; below us. She’s sitting in the passenger seat, legs pulled up to her chest, eyes glistening, most likely from emotion. Rap music warbles from the radio, distorted, diffusing through the car as we wait for her to continue. Steven starts the car and my head rattles against the glass. Someone hands me a bottle, the label peeling and the residue from the back of the sticker gritty against my fingers.

“It just doesn’t seem real,” the girl says after a minute. Daniel. She’s talking about Daniel. “I saw him a week ago. I was just talking to him a week ago!”

Someone extends their hand towards me, wanting a drink. I tilt the bottle and swallow as much as I can before passing it on. The guy next to me runs his fingers over my hand before taking it.

“It just seems like he moved away or something,” someone says.

“Remember that time he walked me to the nurse’s office?”

“He was so nice. So, so nice.”

“Yeah, he was cool.”

“I always thought he was cute. I… It’s just so weird.”

“Lavender.” I pull my head up when I hear my name. It’s Steven’s girlfriend, eyes huge, voice flickering. “I’m so sorry.” Why? The whole situation is clearly making a bigger impact on her.

“Thank you,” I whisper back.

They start talking more about Daniel: his great taste in music, his endless potential, those amazing blurry pictures he took in last year’s photography class. Sierra texts me back.

I have two essays to write! Save ME.

The bottle comes back to me. I tip it too far and liquid spills on my shirt. My brain is spinning, dancing. I take a breath, toss the bottle at someone else, and then reply.

That sucks! But…

I don’t send it. I can’t think of anything else to say. Someone hands me their phone as soon as I put mine down, a picture of Daniel and me pulled up on their screen. He’s laughing and I’m looking to the side, focused on something else. I don’t even remember the day.

“Wow, he really loved you.” Someone lays a hand on my shoulder. Ha! I almost laugh, but don’t have the energy.

“He did not,” I manage. They all look at me like I’m the last to know a secret. My body feels hot and cold, heavy and light, too many things at once. I’m thinking about Daniel, about us together, how neither of us wanted more. We paused whenever he wanted to date another girl, be with someone else. We paused when I got tired of the redundancy, peoples’ talk. I’ll always be known as his true love, though we never shared the noun version of the word.

I lean forward, put my face on the chair in front of me.

“Uh, Lavender? Are you okay?”

“You look really sick.” 

I feel sick—swirly, in general. Like my whole body is on a merry-go-round but my brain hasn’t caught up yet. The setting is still wrong. I think Steven stops the car, and I think I open my door and totter out, and maybe I’m leaning against a random person’s tree in front of their house, sick, sick, sick. I’m shivering, tilting, and I’m pretty sure I’m about to fall.

“Lavender…?”

“What’s wrong? Did you drink too much?”

“Are you okay?”

“Please. Leave. Please.” They do; I hear car doors slamming. I lean over and throw up. Some of it gets on my dress, my legs. I vomit again. Slump against the tree. Wait for my body to recalibrate, dirt in my hair, skirt bunched at my waist, bark scraping the back of my thighs.

The next afternoon my mom goes out with friends, so I go for a walk. I want someone to call, talk to me first, so I can just mention it. My screen stays blank.

Phone in hand, I walk to the playground three blocks from my house. Climb a ladder to get to my favorite slide—the one that twists, not the one that just goes straight down. I sit at the top, lean against the thick yellow plastic, my hair puffing from static. Wait a minute. Two minutes. Three. And then I dial Sierra.

“What’s up? I’m walking to class!” Sierra’s yelling over the noise of Boston, 200 miles away. I turn the volume on my phone down before answering.

“I need to tell you something.” I grimace at how dramatic I sound. Your husband just died. Your grandmother had a stroke. Nuclear warfare has begun.

“Oh my god, are you pregnant?” She’s giggling.

“No!” I screech. And then pause. And then frown. The wind picks up, blows my coat open. I balance my phone between my head and shoulder as I zip my jacket back up. “I…” My lips are burning from the thrashing wind and I run my tongue over them, knowing it’ll only make it worse but wanting the reprieve.

“Ooh, some girl just whacked a guy with a book. He’s on the ground.”

“Because he got hit with a book?”    

“It looks like a textbook,” Sierra clarifies. 

“Anyway, I had a miscarriage,” I blurt. It sounds heavy, presumptuous. “Not like… I didn’t know I was pregnant. It was early. Apparently that happens a lot?” I wait. I imagine her absorbing this information, recognizing the gravity. “It’s not even a big deal. It’s just weird,” I add.

“Well.” Sierra pauses to yawn. Why is she yawning? I heard that it’s not actually from boredom; it has more to do with information processing or something like that. I think. My stomach turns itself over and over.

“I don’t, like, believe there was life yet or anything, so…” Sierra trails off.

“Yeah, no! It was just a couple weeks in, I guess.” I swallow, feeling like I’m on the edge of something.

“Sorry for the inconvenience?” She laughs. “I don’t know what you want me to say.” I blink. Wonder why her words feel so sharp. It’s not like I think I lost a full-blown human being. Nobody died. It wasn’t even anything, yet.

“No, it’s like, the implication, you know?” I say. “How it could’ve been something. Like, it would’ve been.”

“Yeah, weird.” There is a few seconds of silence. “Well, I gotta head inside, but talk to you later?”

“Definitely,” I say. I hear the dial tone, signaling the end of the call. I keep holding my phone up to my ear. I survey the playground: two slides, money bars, swing-set. Standard. Shredded wood coats the ground – they switched over from the spongey rubber when I was seven, and I remember crying when the wood chips got stuck between my toes.

For a second I have this urge to call Daniel, because maybe he’d have a different opinion or maybe he’d know what is even going on. Then I remember. I’m annoyed at myself for forgetting, and him for ignoring all the billboards and commercials they constantly shove in our faces.

My phone buzzes against my skin. I pull it away and examine the screen. Sierra.

The boy who got hit with the book is sitting next to me! He’s talking to me about his sister, she was the one who hit him apparently. He’s cute. Did I mention that?

I turn the screen off, stand up, and tuck my phone into my pocket. Walking toward my house, I pass the elementary school next to the playground. There’s a lady with bright red hair striding towards the entrance. A teacher, maybe? A mom? If it’s so common to lose pregnancies before you’re even aware of them, how many people around me were almost mothers?

I don’t know. A lot.

Sometime that week I go with my mom to the store, following her down the aisles as she picks up cereal, bread, apples. She’s inspecting different bags of carrots when I see Daniel’s mom, holding a bottle of wine and a bag of frozen green beans.

I could just go over there and tell her. Would she be shocked, start crying over the missed opportunity? Sad but relieved? What if she was angry and called me a whore? Maybe she would be understanding. Tell me she knew about the feeling you get in the bottom of your stomach when you realize you missed an opportunity, whether or not you wanted it in the first place.

I don’t want to know her reaction. So I follow my mom to the checkout area and stand in line, wondering what I’m supposed to be feeling.

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