Before I Fall
Lindsay whips around to face me. “What did you say?”
“Did you say—”
“I didn’t say anything.” I lean my head against the glass.
Elody’s still sitting there with the condom dangling between her fingers. “C’mon, Sam. No glove, no love, right?”
Losing my virginity seems absurd to me now, the plot point of a different movie, a different character, a different lifetime. I try to reach back and remember what I love about Rob—what I loved about him—but all I get is a random collection of images in no particular order: Rob passing out on Kent’s couch, grabbing my arm and accusing me of cheating; Rob laying his head on my shoulder in his basement, whispering that he wants to fall asleep next to me; Rob turning his back on me in sixth grade; Rob holding up his hand and saying, Five minutes; Rob taking my hand for the first time ever when we were walking through the hall, a feeling of pride and strength going through me. They seem like the memories of somebody else.
That’s when it really hits me: none of it matters anymore. Nothing matters anymore.
I twist around in my seat, reaching back to grab the condom from Elody.
“No glove, no love,” I say, giving her a tight smile.
Elody cheers. “That’s my girl.”
I’m turning around again when Lindsay slams on the brakes at a red light. I jet forward and have to reach out one hand to keep from hitting the dash and then, as the car stops moving, slam back against the headrest. The coffee in the cup holder jumps its lip and splashes my thigh.
“Oops.” Lindsay giggles. “So sorry.”
“You really are a hazard.” Elody laughs and reaches around to buckle her seat belt.
The anger I’ve felt all morning pours out in a rush. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Lindsay’s smile freezes on her face. “Excuse me?”
“I said, What the hell is wrong with you?” I grab some napkins from inside the glove compartment and start wiping off my leg. The coffee’s not even that hot—Lindsay had the lid off to cool it—but it leaves a splotchy red mark on my thigh, and I feel like crying. “It’s not that hard. Red light: stop. Green light: go. I know that yellow might be a little harder for you to grasp, but you’d think with a little practice you could come to terms with it.”
Lindsay and Elody are both staring at me in stunned silence, but I don’t stop, I can’t stop, this is all Lindsay’s fault, Lindsay and her stupid driving. “They could train monkeys to drive better than you. So what? What is it? You need to prove you don’t give a shit? That you don’t care about anything? You don’t care about anybody? Tap a fender here, swipe a mirror there, oops, thank God we have our airbags, that’s what bumpers are for, just keep going, keep driving, no one will ever know. Guess what, Lindsay? You don’t have to prove anything. We already know you don’t give a shit about anybody but yourself. We’ve always known.”
I run out of air then, and for a second after I stop speaking, there’s total silence. Lindsay’s not even looking at me. She’s staring straight ahead, both hands on the wheel, knuckles white from clutching it so tightly. The light turns green and she presses her foot on the accelerator, hard. The engine roars, sounding like distant thunder.
It takes Lindsay a while to speak and when she does her voice is low and strangled-sounding. “Where the hell do you get off…?”
“Guys.” Elody pipes up nervously from the back. “Don’t fight, okay? Just drop it.”
The anger is still running through me, an electrical current. It makes me feel sharper and more alert than I have in years. I whirl around to face Elody.
“How come you never stand up for yourself?” I say. She shrinks back a little, her eyes darting between Lindsay and me. “You know it’s true. She’s a bitch. Go ahead, say it.”
“Leave her out of it,” Lindsay hisses.
Elody opens her mouth and then gives a minute shake of her head.
“I knew it,” I say, feeling triumphant and sick at the same time. “You’re scared of her. I knew it.”
“I told you to leave her alone.” Lindsay finally raises her voice.
“I’m supposed to leave her alone?” The sharpness, the sense of clarity is disappearing. Instead everything feels like it’s spinning out of my control. “You’re the one who treats her like shit all the time. It’s you. Elody’s so pathetic. Look at Elody climbing all over Steve—he doesn’t even like her. Look, Elody’s trashed again. Hope she doesn’t puke in my car, don’t want the leather to smell like alcoholic.”
Elody draws in a sharp breath on the last word. I know I’ve gone too far. The second I say it I want to take it back. My mirror is still flipped down, and I can see Elody staring out the window, mouth quivering like she’s trying not to cry. Number one rule of best friends: there are certain things that you never, ever say.
All of a sudden Lindsay slams on the brakes. We’re in the middle of Route 120, about a half mile from school, but there’s a line of traffic behind us. A car has to swerve into the other lane to avoid hitting us. Thankfully there’s no oncoming traffic. Even Elody cries out.
“Jesus.” My heart is racing. The car passes us, honking furiously. The passenger rolls down his window and yells something, but I can’t hear it; I just see the flash of a baseball hat and angry eyes. “What are you doing?”
The people in the cars in line behind us start leaning on their horns too, but Lindsay throws the car in park and doesn’t move.
“Lindsay,” Elody says anxiously, “Sam’s right. It’s not funny.”
Lindsay lunges for me, and I think she’s going to hit me. Instead she leans over and shoves open the door.
“Out,” she says quietly, her voice full of rage.
“What?” The cold air rushes into the car like a punch to the stomach, leaving me deflated. The last of my anger and fearlessness goes with it, and I just feel tired.
“Lindz.” Elody tries to laugh, but the sound comes out high-pitched and hysterical. “You can’t make her walk. It’s freezing.”
“Out,” Lindsay repeats. Cars are starting to pull around us now, everyone honking and rolling down their windows to yell at us. All of their words get lost in the roar of the engines and the bleating of the horns, but it’s still humiliating. The idea of getting out now, of being forced to walk in the gutter while all of those dozens of cars roll by me, with all those people watching, makes me shrink back against my seat. I look to Elody for more support, but she looks away.
Lindsay leans over. “I. Said. Get. Out,” she whispers, and her mouth is so close to my ear if you couldn’t hear her you’d think she was telling me a secret.
I grab my bag and step into the cold. The freezing air on my legs almost paralyzes me. The second I’m out of the car Lindsay guns it, peeling away with the door still swinging open.
I start walking in the leaf-and-trash-filled ditch that runs next to the road. My fingers and toes go numb almost instantly, and I stomp my feet on the frost-covered leaves to keep the blood flowing. It takes a minute for the long line of traffic to begin to unwind, and horns are still honking away, the sound like the fading wail of a passing train.
A blue Toyota pulls up next to me. A woman leans out—gray-haired, probably in her sixties—and shakes her head.
“Crazy girl,” she says, frowning at me.
For a moment I just stand there, but as the car starts to pull away, I remember that it doesn’t matter, none of it matters, so I throw up my middle finger, hoping she sees.
All the way to school I repeat it again—it doesn’t matter, none of it matters—until the words themselves lose meaning.
Here’s one of the things I learned that morning: if you cross a line and nothing happens, the line loses meaning. It’s like that old riddle about a tree falling in a forest, and whether it makes a sound if there’s no one around to hear it.
You keep drawing a line farther and farther away, crossing it every time. That’s how people end up stepping off the edge of the earth. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to bust out of orbit, to spin out to a place where no one can touch you. To lose yourself—to get lost.
Or maybe you wouldn’t be surprised. Maybe some of you already know.
To those people I can only say: I’m sorry.
I skip my first four periods just because I can, and spend a couple of hours walking the halls with no real goal or destination. I almost hope someone will stop me—a teacher or Ms. Winters or a teacher’s aide or someone—and ask what I’m doing, even accuse me point-blank of cutting and send me to the principal’s office. Fighting with Lindsay left me unsatisfied, and I still feel a vague but pressing desire to do something.
Most of the teachers just nod or smile, though, or give me a half wave. They have no way of knowing my schedule, no way of knowing whether I have a free period or whether class was canceled, and I’m disappointed by how easy it is to break the rules.
When I walk into Mr. Daimler’s class I deliberately don’t look at him, but I can feel his eyes on me, and after I slide into my desk, he comes straight over.
“It’s a little early in the season for beach clothes, don’t you think?” He grins.
Normally whenever he looks at me for longer than a few seconds, I get nervous, but today I force myself to keep my eyes on his. Warmth spreads over my whole body; it reminds me of standing under the heat lamps in my grandmother’s house when I was no older than five. It’s amazing that eyes can do that, that they can transform light into heat. I’ve never felt that way with Rob.
“If you got it, flaunt it,” I say, making my voice soft and steady. I see something flicker in his eyes. I’ve surprised him.
“I guess so,” he murmurs, so quietly I’m sure I’m the only one who hears. Then he blushes bright red like he can’t believe himself. He nods at my desk, which is empty except for a pen and the small square notebook Lindsay and I use to pass back and forth between classes, writing notes to each other. “No roses today? Or did your bouquet get too heavy to carry around?”
I haven’t been to any of my classes so I haven’t collected any Valograms. I don’t even care. In the past I would rather have died than be seen in the halls of Thomas Jefferson on Cupid Day without a single rose. In the past I would have considered it a fate worse than death.
Of course, that was before I actually knew.
I toss my head, shrugging. “I’m kind of over it.” It’s as though confidence is flowing into me from someone else, someone older and beautiful, like I’m only playing a part.
He smiles at me, and again I see something moving in his eyes. Then he goes back to his desk and claps his hands, gesturing for everybody to take their seats. As always the dirty hemp necklace is peeking out from under his collar, and I let myself think about looping my fingers through it, pulling him toward me, and kissing him. His lips are thick—but not too thick—and shaped exactly how a guy’s mouth should be shaped, like if he just parted his lips at all, your mouth would fit directly on top of it. I think of the picture from his high school yearbook, when he’s standing with his arm around his prom date. She was thin, long brown hair, even smile. Like me.