Before I Fall
“You’re the best,” he says, ducking down to kiss my cheek. “No crying—we’re at a party, remember? It’s supposed to be fun.” He starts backing away and holds up his hand, fingers extended. “Five minutes.”
I press myself against the wall and wait. I don’t know what else to do. People are going past me, and I keep my hair down and in my face so no one will be able to tell the tears are still coming. The party is loud, but somehow it seems remote. Words are distorted and music sounds the way it does at a carnival, like all the notes are off balance and just colliding with one another.
Five minutes pass, then seven. Ten minutes pass, and I tell myself I’ll wait five more minutes and then go look for him, even though the idea of moving seems impossible. After twelve minutes I text, Where r u? but then remember that yesterday he told me he’d set his phone down somewhere.
And this time, when I imagine myself lying somewhere, I’m not sleeping. This time I imagine myself stretched out on a cold stone slab, skin as white as milk, lips blue, and hands folded across my chest like they’ve been placed there….
I take a deep breath and force myself to focus on other things. I count the Christmas lights framing the E.T. movie poster over a couch, and then I count the bright red glowing cigarette butts weaving around through the half darkness like fireflies. I’m not a math geek or anything, but I’ve always liked numbers. I like how you can just keep stacking them up, one on top of the other, until they fill any space, any moment. I told my friends this one day, and Lindsay said I was going to be the kind of old woman who memorizes phone books and keeps flattened cereal boxes and newspapers piled from floor to ceiling in her house, looking for messages from space in the bar codes.
But a few months later I was sleeping over, and she confessed that sometimes when she’s upset about something she recites this Catholic bedtime prayer she memorized when she was little, even though she’s half Jewish and doesn’t even believe in God anyway.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.
She’d seen it embroidered on a pillow in her piano teacher’s house, and we laughed about how lame embroidered pillows were. But until I fell asleep that night I couldn’t get the prayer out of my head. That one line kept replaying over and over in my mind: If I should die before I wake.
I’m just about to force myself away from the wall when I hear Rob’s name. Two sophomores have stumbled into the room, giggling, and I strain to hear what they’re saying.
“…his second in two hours.”
“No, Matt Kessler did the first one.”
“They both did.”
“Did you see how Aaron Stern is, like, holding him above the keg? Completely upside down.”
“That’s what a keg stand is, duh.”
“Rob Cokran is so hot.”
“Shhh. Oh my God.”
One of the girls elbows the other one when she notices me. Her face goes white. She’s probably terrified: she’s been talking about my boyfriend (misdemeanor), but, more specifically, she’s been talking about how hot he is (felony). If Lindsay were here, she would freak out, call the girls whores, and get them booted from the party. If she were here she would expect me to freak out. Lindsay thinks that underclassmen—specifically sophomore girls—need to be put in their place. Otherwise they’ll overrun the universe like cockroaches, protected from nuclear attack by an armor of Tiffany jewelry and shiny lip-gloss shells.
I don’t have the energy to give these girls attitude, though, and I’m glad Lindsay’s not with me so she can’t give me crap about it. I should have known Rob wouldn’t come back. I think about today, when he told me to trust him, when he said that he’d never let me down. I should have told him he was full of it.
I need to get out. I need to be away from the smoke and the music. I need a place to think. I’m still freezing, and I’m sure I look awful, though I don’t feel like I’m going to cry anymore. We once watched this health video about the symptoms of shock, and I’m pretty much the poster child for all of them. Difficulty breathing. Cold, clammy hands. Dizziness. Knowing this makes me feel even worse.
Which just goes to show you should never pay attention in health class.
The line for both bathrooms is four deep and all of the rooms are packed. It’s eleven o’clock and everyone who has planned on showing is here. A couple of people say my name, and Tara Flute gets in my face and says, “Oh my God. I love your earrings. Did you get them at—”
“Not now.” I cut her off and keep going, desperate to find somewhere dark and quiet. To my left is a closed door, the one with all of the bumper stickers plastered to it. I grip the doorknob and shake it. It doesn’t open, of course.
“That’s the VIP room.”
I turn around and Kent is standing behind me, smiling.
“You’ve got to be on the list.” He leans against the wall. “Or slip the bouncer a twenty. Whichever.”
“I—I was looking for the bathroom.”
Kent tilts his head toward the other side of the hall, where Ronica Masters, obviously drunk, is hammering on a door with her fist.
“Come on, Kristen!” she’s yelling. “I really have to pee.”
Kent turns back to me and raises his eyebrows.
“My bad,” I say, and try to push past him.
“Are you okay?” Kent doesn’t exactly touch me, but he holds his hand up like he’s thinking about it. “You look—”
“I’m fine.” The last thing in the world I need right now is pity from Kent McFuller, and I shove back into the hallway.
I’ve just decided to go outside and call Lindsay from the porch—I’ll tell her I need to leave ASAP, I have to leave—when Elody barrels into the hall, throwing her arms around me.
“Where the hell have you been?” she screeches, kissing me. She’s sweating, and I think of Izzy climbing into my bed and putting her arms around me, tugging on my necklace. I should never have gotten out of bed today.
“Let me guess, let me guess.” Elody leaves her arms around me and starts bumping her hips like we’re grinding on a dance floor. She rolls her eyes to the ceiling and starts moaning, “Oh, Rob, oh, Rob. Yeah. Just like that.”
“You’re a pervert.” I push her off me. “You’re worse than Otto.”
She laughs and grabs my hand, starts dragging me toward the back room. “Come on. Everyone’s in here.”
“I have to go,” I say. The music back here is louder and I’m yelling. “I don’t feel good.”
“I don’t feel good!”
She points to her ear like, I can’t hear you. I’m not sure if it’s true or not. Her palms are wet and I try to pull away, but at that second Lindsay and Ally spot me, and they start squealing, jumping all over me.
“I was looking for you for ages,” Lindsay says, waving her cigarette.
“In Patrick’s mouth, maybe.” Ally snorts.
“She was with Rob.” Elody points at me, swaying on her feet. “Look at her. She looks guilty.”
“Hussy!” Lindsay screeches. Ally pipes in with, “Trollop!” and Elody yells out, “Harlot!” This is an old joke of ours: Lindsay decided slut was too boring last year.
“I’m going home,” I say. “You don’t have to drive me. I’ll figure it out.”
Lindsay must think I’m kidding. “Go home? We only got here, like, an hour ago.” She leans forward and whispers, “Besides, I thought you and Rob were going to…you know.” As though she didn’t just scream out in front of everybody that I already had.
“I changed my mind.” I do my best to sound like I don’t care, and the effort it takes is exhausting. I’m angry at Lindsay without knowing why—for not ditching the party with me, I guess. I’m angry at Elody for dragging me back here and at Ally for always being so clueless. I’m angry at Rob for not caring how upset I am, and I’m angry at Kent for caring. I’m angry at everyone and everything, and in that second I fantasize about the cigarette Lindsay’s waving catching on the curtains, about fire racing over the room and consuming everyone. Then, immediately, I feel guilty. The last thing I need is to morph into one of those people who’s always wearing black and doodling guns and bombs on her notebook.
Lindsay’s gaping at me like she can see what I’m thinking. Then I realize she’s looking over my shoulder. Elody turns pink. Ally’s mouth starts opening and closing like a fish’s. There’s a dip in the noise of the party, like someone has just hit pause on a soundtrack.
Juliet Sykes. I know it will be her before I turn around, but I’m still surprised when I see her, still struck with that same sense of wonder.
Today when I saw her drifting through the cafeteria she looked like she always did, hair hanging in her face, baggy clothing, shrunken into herself like she could be anyone, anywhere, a phantom or a shadow.
But now she’s standing straight and her hair is pulled back and her eyes are glittering.
She walks across the room toward us. My mouth goes dry. I want to say no, but she’s standing in front of Lindsay before I can get the word out. I see her mouth moving, but what she says takes a second to understand, like I’m hearing it from underwater.
“You’re a bitch.”
Everyone is whispering, staring at our little huddle: me, Lindsay, Elody, Ally, and Juliet Sykes. I feel my cheeks burning. The sound of voices begins to swell.
“What did you say?” Lindsay is gritting her teeth.
“A bitch. A mean girl. A bad person.” Juliet turns to Elody. “You’re a bitch.” To Ally. “You’re a bitch.” Finally her eyes click on mine. They’re exactly the color of sky.
“You’re a bitch.”
The voices are a roar now, people laughing and screaming out, “Psycho.”
“You don’t know me,” I croak out at last, finding my voice, but Lindsay has already stepped forward and drowns me out.
“I’d rather be a bitch than a psycho,” she snarls, and puts two hands on Juliet’s shoulders and shoves. Juliet stumbles backward, pinwheeling her arms, and it’s all so horrible and familiar. It’s happening again; it’s actually happening. I close my eyes. I want to pray, but all I can think is, Why, why, why, why.
When I open my eyes Juliet is coming toward me, drenched, arms outstretched. She looks up at me, and I swear to God it’s like she knows, like she can see straight into me, like this is somehow my fault. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach and the air goes out of me and I lunge at her without thinking, push her and send her backward. She collapses into a bookshelf and then spins off of it, grabbing the doorframe to steady herself. Then she ducks out into the hallway.
“Can you believe it?” someone is screeching behind me.