“Last year I got twenty-two roses.” Lindsay flicks her cigarette butt out of the window and leans over for a slurp of coffee. “I’m going for twenty-five this year.”
Each year before Cupid Day the student council sets up a booth outside the gym. For two dollars each, you can buy your friends Valograms—roses with little notes attached to them—which then get delivered by Cupids (usually freshman or sophomore girls trying to get in good with the upperclassman) throughout the day.
“I’d be happy with fifteen,” I say. It’s a big deal how many roses you get. You can tell who’s popular and who isn’t by the number of roses they’re holding. It’s bad if you get under ten and humiliating if you don’t get more than five—it basically means that you’re either ugly or unknown. Probably both. Sometimes people scavenge for dropped roses to add to their bouquets, but you can always tell.
The point is, we can do [embarrassing] things. You know why? Because we’re popular. And we’re popular because we can get away with everything. So it’s circular. I guess what I’m saying is there’s no point in analyzing it. If you draw a circle, there will always be an inside and an outside, and unless you’re a total nut job, it’s pretty easy to see which is which. I’m not going to lie, though. It’s nice that everything’s easy for us. It’s a good feeling knowing you can basically do whatever you want. […] And believe me: I know what it’s like to be on the other side. I was there for the first half of my life. The bottom of the bottom, lowest of the low. I know what it’s like to have to squabble and pick and fight over the leftovers. So now I have first pick of everything. So what. That’s the way it is. Nobody ever said life was fair.
I know some of you are thinking maybe I deserved it. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent that rose to Juliet or dumped my drink on her at the party. Maybe I shouldn’t have copped off Lauren Lornet’s quiz. Maybe I shouldn’t have said those things to Kent. There are probably some of you who think I deserved it because I was going to let Rob go all the way—because I wasn’t going to save myself. But before you start pointing fingers, let me ask you: is what I did really so bad? So bad I deserved to die? So bad I deserved to die like that? Is what I did really so much worse than what anybody else does? Is it really so much worse than what you do?
I read once that you get déjà vu when the two halves of your brain process things at different speeds: the right half a few seconds before the left, or vice versa. Science is probably my worst subject, so I didn’t understand the whole post, but that would explain the weird double feeling that it leaves you with, like the world is splitting in half—or you are. That’s the way I feel, at least: like there’s a real me and a reflection of me, and I have no way of telling which is which.
Lindsay, Ally, Elody and I are as close as you can be, but there are still some things we never talk about. For example, even though Lindsay says Patrick is her first and only, this isn’t technically true. Technically, her first was a guy she met at a party when she was visiting her stepbrother at NYU. They smoked pot, split a six-pack, and had sex, and he never knew she hadn’t done it before. We don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the fact that we can never hang out at Elody’s house after five o’clock because her mother will be home, and drunk. We don’t talk about the fact that Ally never eats more than a quarter of what’s on her plate, even though she’s obsessed with cooking and watches the Food Network for hours on end. We don’t talk about the joke that for years trailed me down hallways, into classrooms, and on the bus, that wove its way into my dreams: “What’s red and white and weird all over? Sam Kingston!” And we definitely don’t talk about the fact that Lindsay was the one who made it up. A good friend keeps secrets for you. A best friend helps you keep your own secrets.
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 the 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.
Anna’s face gets serious, and she takes a long pull of the joint, then stares at me through the cloud of blue smoke.
“So,” she says, “why do you guys hate me?”
Of all the things I expect her to say, it’s not this. Even more unexpected, she holds the spliff out in my direction, offering me some. I hesitate for only a second. Hey, just because I’m dead doesn’t mean I’m a saint.
“We don’t hate you.” It doesn’t come out convincingly. The truth is I’m not sure. I don’t hate Anna, really; Lindsay’s always said she does, but it’s hard to know what Lindsay’s reasons are for anything. […]
“Then what’s the reason?” She doesn’t say, For all the shitty things you’ve done. For the bathroom graffiti. For the fake email blast sophomore year: Anna Cartullo has chlamydia. She doesn’t have to. She passes the joint back to me. I take another hit. […] “I don’t know.” Because it’s easy. “I guess you need to take things out on somebody. The words are out of my mouth before I realize they’re true.
“It’s not my fault I can’t be like you, okay? I don’t get up in the morning thinking the world is one big shiny, happy place, okay? That’s just not how I work. I don’t think I can be fixed.” I meant to say, I don’t think “it” can be fixed, but it comes out wrong, and suddenly I’m on the verge of crying. […] There’s a moment of silence that seems to last forever. Then Kent rests his hand on my elbow just for a second, [and] just that one little touch gives me the chills.
“I was going to tell you that you look beautiful with your hair down. That’s all I was going to say.” Kent’s voice is steady and low. He moves around me to the head of the stairs, pausing just at the top. When he turns back to me he looks sad, even though he’s smiling the tiniest bit. “You don’t need to be fixed, Sam.” He says the words, but it’s like I don’t even hear them; it’s like they go through my whole body at the same time, like I’m absorbing them from the air. […] I’m a nonperson, a shadow, a ghost. Even before the accident I’m not sure that I was a whole person—that’s what I’m realizing now. And I’m not sure where the damage begins.
Ally takes a sip of the vodka she’s holding, then winces. “Lindsay was freaking out. I told you, she was really upset.”
“It's true though, isn't it? What I said.”
“It doesn't matter if it’s true.” Ally shakes her head. “She's Lindsay. She's ours. We're each other's, you know?”
I’ve never thought of Ally as smart, but this is probably the smartest thing I’ve heard in a long time.
“I thought Cupid Day was one of your favorites.”
“It is. Or, I mean, it was.” I sit up on my elbows. “I don’t know, it’s kind of stupid, if you think about it.”
[My mom] raises her eyebrows.
I start rattling on, not really thinking about what I want to say before I say it. “The whole point is just to show other people how many friends you have. But everybody knows how many friends everybody else has. And it’s not like you actually get more friends this way or, I don’t know, get closer to the friends you do have.”
My mom smiles a tiny bit. “Well, you’re lucky to have very good friends, and to know it. I’m sure the roses are very meaningful to some people.”
“I’m just saying, the whole thing is kind of sleazy.”
“This doesn’t sound like the Samantha Kingston I know.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I’m changing.” I don’t mean those words either, until I hear them. Then I think that they might be true, and I feel a flicker of hope. Maybe there’s still a chance for me, after all. Maybe I have to change.
It amazes me how easy it is for things to change, how easy it is to start off down the same road you always take and wind up somewhere new. Just one false step, one pause, one detour, and you end up with new friends or a bad reputation or a boyfriend or a breakup. It’s never occurred to me before; I’ve never been able to see it. And it makes me feel, weirdly, like maybe all of these different possibilities exist at the same time, like each moment we live has a thousand other moments layered underneath it that look different. Maybe Lindsay and I are best friends and he hate each other, both. Maybe I’m only one math class away from being a slut like Anna Cartullo. Maybe I am like her, deep down. Maybe we all are: just one lunch period away from eating alone in the bathroom. I wonder if it’s ever really possible to know the truth about someone else, or if the best we can do is just stumble into each other, heads down, hoping to avoid collision.
Maybe the whole point is I have to prove that I'm a good person. Maybe I have to prove that I deserve to move on. Maybe Juliet Sykes is the only thing between me and an eternity of chocolate fountains and perfect love and guys who always call when they say they will and banana sundaes that
actually help you burn calories. Maybe she's my ticket out.
The wind shrieks, and I suddenly realize that Juliet's only a half inch from the road, teetering on the thin line where the pavement begins, like she's balancing on a tightrope.
“Maybe you should come away from the road,” I say, but all the time in the back of my head, there’s an idea growing and swelling, a horrible, sickening realization, massing up and taking shape like clouds on the horizon. Someone calls my name again. And then, still in the distance, I hear the throaty wail of “Splinter” by Fallacy pumping from someone's car.
“Sam! Sam!” I recognize it as Kent's voice now.
Juliet turns to face me then. She’s smiling, but it's the saddest smile I’ve ever seen.
“Maybe next time,” she says. “But probably not.”
“Do you want any breakfast, Sam?” my mom asks. I never eat breakfast at home, but my mom still asks me every day—when she catches me before I duck out, anyway—and in that moment I realize how much I love the little everyday routines of my life: the fact that she always asks, the fact that I always say no because there’s a sesame bagel waiting for me in Lindsay’s car, the fact that we always listen to “No More Drama” as we pull into the parking lot. The fact that my mom always cooks spaghetti and meatballs on Sunday, and the fact that once a month my dad takes over the kitchen and makes his “special stew” which is just hot dog pieces and baked beans and lots of extra ketchup and molasses, and I would never admit to liking it, but it’s actually one of my favorite meals. The details that are my life’s special pattern, like how in handwoven rugs what really makes them unique are the tiny flaws in the stitching, little gaps and jumps and stutters that can never be reproduced. So many things become beautiful when you really look.
[Lindsay] doesn't hate [Juliet.] She's afraid of her. Juliet Sykes, the keeper of Lindsay’s oldest, maybe her worst, secret. And it all seems absurd now, the chance and randomness of it. One person shoots up and the other spirals downward—random and meaningless. As simple as being in the right place, or the wrong place, or however you want to look at it. As simple as getting a craving for Diet Pepsi one day at a pool party, and getting swept away; as simple as not saying no.
“Why didn't you say anything?” I ask, even though I already know the answer. My voice comes out hoarse from the effort of swallowing back tears.
Juliet shrugs. “She was my best friend, you know? She was always so sad back then.” Juliet makes a noise that could be a laugh or a whimper. “Besides,” she says more quietly, “I thought it would pass.”
At the same time the more I think about it […] the angrier I get. This is my life: the whole big, sprawling mess of my life in all its possibilities—first kisses and last kisses and college and apartments and marriage and fights and apologies and happiness—brought to a point, a second, an edge of a second, razored off in that final moment by Juliet’s last act: her revenge against us, against me. The farther I get from the party, the more I think, No. It can't happen this way. No matter what we did, it can't happen this way.
She wants me to tell her it’s okay. She needs me to tell her that. I can’t, though. Instead I say, quietly, “People would like you anyway, Lindz.” I don’t say, if you stopped pretending so much, but I know she understands. “We’d still love you no matter what.”
The last time I have the dream it goes like this: I am falling, tumbling through the air, but this time the darkness is alive around me, full of beating things, and I realize that I'm not surrounded by dark but have only had my eyes closed all this time. I open them, feeling silly, and at the same time a hundred thousand butterflies take off around me, so many of them in so many brilliant colors they are like a solid rainbow, temporarily obscuring the sun. But as they wing higher and higher they reveal a landscape below us, all green and gold and sun-drenched fields and pink-tinged clouds drifting underneath me, and the air around me is clear and blue and sweet smelling, and I'm laughing, laughing, laughing as I spin through the air because, of course, I haven't been falling all this time.
I've been flying.
And when I wake up it's wonderful, like I've been carried quietly onto a calm, peaceful shore, and the dream, and its meaning, has broken over me like a wave and is ebbing away now, leaving me with a single, solid certainty. I know now.
In my head I've been saying good-bye to everything, all these places I’ve seen so often I start to ignore them: the deli on the hill with perfect chicken cutlets and the trinket store where I used to buy thread to make friendship bracelets and the Realtor’s and the dentist's and the little garden where Steve King put his tongue in my mouth in seventh grade, and I was so surprised I bit down. I can't stop thinking about how strange life is, about Kent and Juliet and even Alex and Anna and Bridget and Mr. Shaw and Ms. Winters—about how complex and connected everything is, all threaded together like some vast, invisible netting—and how sometimes you can think you're doing the right thing, but it's actually terrible and vice versa.
Floating images, moving in and out: bright green eyes and a field of sun-warmed grass, a mouth saying, Sam, Sam, Sam, making it sound like a song. Three faces blooming together like flowers on a single stem, names ebbing away from me, a single word: love. Red and white flashes, tree branches lit up like the vaulted ceiling of a church. And a face above mine, white and beautiful, eyes as large as the moon. You saved me. A hand on my cheek, cool and dry. Why did you save me? Words welling up on a tide: No. The opposite. Eyes the color of a dawn sky, a crown of blond hair, so bright and white and blinding I could swear it was a halo.