Right Here in the YardShawn Mihalik
The following is an excerpt from the novel Shapes the Sunlight Takes by Josh Wagner. Click on the media player below to listen to the author read this excerpt.
My desire for Mirielle starts in the space between her eyes and unfolds like dark calligraphy toward each of her ears. Her eyebrows kindled this fire, but I didn’t fall in love until it became clear just how much she hates them. Brooks has found her hunched over in her locker, tweezing around the edges, curating rogue hairs. Mirielle sees her eyebrows as a grotesque and savage wilderness, but I see a reticulate interior, an Amazonian paradise, scars of shadow on a face of otherwise pure light.
Today she and her friends sit in the grass in the Yard—as in the schoolyard—like something straight off the cover of a college brochure. There’s the low-hanging tree branch, the serene, soft-focus skyline. Notepads and textbooks scattered around like fallen fruit. Cream-colored sweaters. Knock-off designer jeans from Target. Ultra-tiny purses. Label tees. Bridgett Marrowgold, the oh-so-perf future supermodel-in-training, holds an apple just so, its waxy skin sweating in the sun. Rae Stryker, decked out like Janis Joplin, fiddles around on a rosewood guitar. I’ve been watching for ten or fifteen minutes, composing their conversations and taking mental snapshots as they pose immaculately on behalf of whatever subterranean gods oversee wasted teenage potential.
Bridgett leans into Mirielle’s shoulder and without deviating from her scripted girlish laughter she whispers, “Maggie Andrews is such a total cunt.” Mirielle’s smile does not falter. Parted lips ripe and delicate, nearly translucent. She stares at clouds. I follow her gaze and I see a narwhal, a pomegranate tree, a smartphone.
“What’s that hippie shit you’re playing?” Gail Langley asks Rae Stryker. Gail has short hair, neo-punk; total bitch.
Mirielle narrows her eyes when she smiles. Her hands never drop below her hips and her arms refuse to dangle. They hug her ribs like she’s trying to keep the stuffing in. Oh god, the moments when her fingers rake the nape of her neck, when she stretches her back and presses her face to the sun! Or when her arms settle around her waist. I’m crazy about midriffs and hers is like the Platonic ideal of all midriffery. When she walks she’s an aspen in the fog. Something about her smell makes time flow backwards. I love that her breasts are small—they’re even smaller than mine. And, by the way, this is the one and only reason she doesn’t have guys crawling all over her. High school boys aim as deep into the bra alphabet as they can, but don’t know how to deal with the unquantifiable face of the sublime. Exotic eyebrows, for instance. But I’ve seen older guys, college guys—the way they look at her—they can see.
“Did anyone get letters back?” Rae sets her guitar down and pinches the skin where cheek, lower eyelid, and the bridge of her nose meet. She pulls a teardrop as if out of thin air, holds it on her fingertip like a splinter, and then snuffs it out with her thumb.
“I got into the U,” says Gail.
Mirielle shakes back her hair, and the sunlight electrifies long candystripe waves of cinnamon and mocha.
“That doesn’t count,” says Rae.
Hair that visibly refracts the sunlight.
“Weren’t you trying for Berkeley?”
Hair that pauses at the apex of the toss before descending back onto her shoulders, each strand a parachute.
“Fuck that. California is screwed, my brother says. They won’t even have water in five years.”
“Doesn’t he live in L.A.?”
“He’s moving to Mexico.”
Rae has a torn tear duct. Years ago, while she was quarantined with the chickenpox, one of the blisters exploded at the bridge of her nose and spread into her right eye. She scratched at it so much that it ripped open the puncta of her lower canalicular duct. Now whenever the duct fills up it drips. Persistent saline jewels cling to the corner of her eye, and she destroys each one with a habitual swipe of her fingertip.
Bridgett takes a bite of her apple and drops the rest into a brown paper bag. Today for lunch my mother packed a turkey sandwich with sprouts, a bag of almonds, a box of Craisins, root beer, and a tampon. It’s like this every day. She thinks I am deliberately not getting my period to ruin her life. Some girls just take longer. I’m cool about this. I’m not as desperate to become a woman as my mother wishes I was.
Bridgett reaches into her purse and grabs her phone. She flips it open, checks something, and then closes it again. She says, “I’m so totally moving to Paris after high school.”
“Paris is dirty,” Gail says.
“College is a scam, that’s what my brother says.”
I have never seen Mirielle’s left knee. She tore her anterior cruciate ligament skiing two years ago and it still hasn’t healed, so there’s always this brace, whether she’s in skirt, shorts or bikini. The enigma of that knee haunts me. Does it look just like her other knee? Is it smaller? Misaligned due to the accident? Is there a birthmark on the cap?
“You could be a doula,” Mirielle says, looking back at the sky. How is it that her hair has yet to fully settle?
“Like a midwife, but you don’t need medical experience or training.”
“What do they do?” Bridgett asks.
“It’s mostly, like, emotional support.” Mirielle stretches. Her shoulder blades kiss. She has this way about stretching like she’s getting ready to tell you a secret or something so surprising that her body has to find the right shape first.
“Doula, you said?” Rae is already Googling it.
“They pay you for this?”
“It’s a good way to live abroad.”
I listen from across the courtyard, my spine pressed into the hollow of a tree. I’m like a pair of binoculars held by some dryad looking through me. I have these moments, these vibratory sessions, when my consciousness seems to draw away from the back of my skull and I perceive things as if through someone else’s eyes, like I’m floating above my body. They’re too far away for my actual physical ears to hear anything. What I gather comes in glimpses and secret codes delivered directly to my brain. I fill in blanks. My mind works with a holistic map of possible realities. Interpolation of human chatter and behavior is no big deal. I know to a reasonable margin of error what Mirielle will wear next Tuesday.
Rae reads: “Doula comes from Ancient Greek meaning ‘female slave’. Nice.”
“Uh, no thanks.”
“… call themselves labor companions and birthworkers.” I suspect Rae is on Wikipedia.
When I picture Mirielle in my room she wears a dozen pearl necklaces and a short black skirt. Her thumb stretches the waistband down ever so slightly until I can see lace licking her right hip. Her knee brace is on. I can’t get rid of it even in my imagination. But the Velcro has come loose and the top edge hangs slack. Her feet are bare. She walks toward me, curling her toes. I’m immobile on the floor except for the conspiratorial twist of muscles around my lumbar spine. The ache of my longing constricts my breath with the playful hesitation in her steps. I love how she takes forever—how she wrings out every delicious second until she’s hovering over me, her hair done up all messy with a few stray locks falling between us, drifting across my face, tickling my skin. I feel her fingertips on my neck. Her breath on my eyelids. She has rings on every finger. Red nail polish. Silver hoop earrings. No mascara. Bare lips.
Sheldon Dawn walks past the girls and gives them a casual nod. Rae stretches out to steal a high five, which mutates into this complicated architecture of fist-bumps and mirroring gestures that all take place between Sheldon’s steps without breaking his stride. I have no clue how other kids even learn this stuff. Is there a class? It all reminds me of how they wouldn’t even know my name if I ever tried to go over and say hi. Maybe Bridgett might. She does her homework and knows one or two shitty facts about everyone in the school.
Mirielle and her friends are seniors. They’re all so beautiful and delusional and enviable. Gail is a virgin who only sucks cock. Rae is sleeping with three guys right now, and they all know each other and know about each other, though none of them seem to care. How does she do that? Bridgett has been true-love-gaga over the school’s star halfback since fifth grade. They went to prom last year and wear promise rings. I’m the only one who knows he’s fucking Megan Chase. Mirielle has never had a boyfriend. Unless you count Derwin Richter, but even with them there was never any talk of it being official. Derwin took off three years ago. Now he’s somewhere down south I think. That’s what Brooks says. He’s Derwin’s little brother. Mirielle dated Mark Fleischer off and on last winter and is sort of seeing Steve Chambers right now, but she’s never had a like-really-for-reals boyfriend. This is a good sign.
Rae is still staring at her phone. “Did you know babies are sometimes born kneeling?” She flicks a tear off her cheek. “The baby is in a kneeling position, with one or both legs extended at the hips and flexed at the knees. Creepy!”
“Your eyeball is creepy,” says Gail.
Going over to say hi is not an option. Better to stay invisible. I used to wake up an hour early to try and make myself look at the very least like an average teenage girl. I tried makeup and different hairstyles and hats and all kinds of clothes. I don’t do any of that shit anymore. I cut my own hair and I don’t care if it’s ugly. Beauty is for the weak. Now I dress like I want. There isn’t a thing I could put on that would hide the fact that I’m a freak. My left eye is huge. My nose is crooked. My lips are thin. There’s this long scar running between my scapulae and down under the left claw of my false ribs from a Mitral valve procedure when I was thirteen months old. I have this cuspid that’s like twisted around the vertical axis—it’s almost backward. Yeah, a backward tooth. My father’s weird ears. I can’t not realize this. And I know it doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t matter, you know? How can people not be insecure about this stuff? Maggie Andrews, for example: dog-faced, but she walks around like she’s Mila Kunis.
Brooks is on the west end of the Yard, kneeling in front of a fire hydrant. He crowns it with pebbles and blades of grass in a lattice pattern. I’m his only real friend. Brooks is blonde, quiet, occasionally bruised. He has this one piercing blue eye that never seems to move. His other eye is brown. Brooks gets pushed around and teased, but he’s just small enough that no one is too rough. I think people are scared to break him. Brooks loves video games, magic tricks, dissecting analog electronics, and listening to music no one’s ever heard before like Lowercase, Glitch-Opera, Danger Sound, Alexander Scriabin, and this spooky German jazz band who always perform in total darkness. Brooks was born a century too soon. The future will be populated by people like him: people who manifest their dreams, who can scream down mountains.
“Autistic individuals display many forms of repetitive or restricted behavior such as stereotypy,” Rae says. “That means repetitive movement, such as hand flapping, making sounds, head rolling, or body rocking.” Now she’s reading about autism. She’s been link hopping: doula to midwifery to breech births to autism. How do I know this?
Gail looks up with feigned concern. “That sounds a lot like your guitar playing, Rae. Should we be worried?”
“O snap,” Bridgett says. Mirielle smiles crane-necked under a fresh sunbeam, still trying to find whatever she lost in the clouds. She closes her eyes. Parts her lips. I feel my vertebrae melt.
“Bitch,” says Rae.
“Nickel-hooker,” says Gail.
The yard fills up as kids trickle back from lunch. My biology teacher regulates their flow over by the double doors. He catches my eye and smiles. I think I’m smiling back. I’m Mr. Larson’s star pupil because on account of my mother got me started on anatomy & physiology in the womb. I swear to god she used to jab around her belly, pointing to organs and reciting their Latin names. When I was a toddler she gave me a stack of anatomy coloring books. I learned to read from Gray’s. For me, ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ was ‘Cranium, scapula, patella, hallux’. My mother wants me to be a doctor, but I’m going to be a DJ. I expect she’ll hang herself when she finds out—that’s if my preference for women doesn’t get her first.
Maggie Andrews walks up behind me. I don’t even have to look. I can smell her lunch breath. Feel the quivering of her impossibly tight rust-red curls. She’s a couple feet away but when she talks the words sound like they’re coming from inside my ear.
“You might as well just rub one out right here in the Yard,” she says, and that’s all she says at first, just hangs on it, waiting to see what I do.
Something happens at the base of my occipital bone. I am livid, paralyzed. The hairs on my arms do their thing. If I could make Maggie Andrews not exist… “What do you want?” I whisper, or maybe I don’t. Maybe I just mouth it. I’m shaking so hard that even pressed against the tree I’m having trouble staying on my feet.
“She’s hot,” Maggie says, closer. Expecting me to turn around. I could die. “You want a piece of that or what?”
“What are you talking about?” This I know I say.
“Everyone knows,” she says.
No longer lucid, no longer with my consciousness spread out across the Yard—I have retracted fully into my body, which itself seems to shrink and compress. I itch everywhere. Fingernails dig into the palms of my hands. My cheeks burn; my eyes squeeze painfully into their sockets.
Maggie Andrews is a sophomore. She’s always it seems like she’s out trying to ruin someone’s life. With her twisted little bitch face, her shitty bitch freckles and her extensive gums and her huge drooping bitch tits that she thinks are like secret weapons or something.
“You’re a little creeper, Lexie,” she says. “Spying on her all the time.”
“So what does that make you—spying on me?”
“You know what? Okay. Fine. You asked for it, you smart-ass dyke.”
I feel her brush by but I don’t open my eyes. This time she really is right there in my ear with a whisper: “I wonder what she’ll think about your little crush.”
I have a vision here, just a flash, of forcing a lead pipe down Maggie Andrews’ throat. What happens actually is it takes all my effort just to keep from crying—a pathetic little hiccup laugh is my attempt to cover up. I can barely get out the word: “Don’t.”
“Like she doesn’t already know. Like it isn’t so totally obvious to everyone.”
“Oh my god, please.” I reach for her. Actually reach out to touch Maggie Andrews on the arm.
“I’m doing you a favor.” She’s somehow already walking away. Toward Gail and Bridgett and Rae. And Mirielle.
All I can do is I just stand there and watch Maggie Andrews take her determined steps, disrupting the brochure tableau and the harmony of Mirielle’s hair. Each step further tears down my perceptive stage. I can no longer hear their conversations over the blood pounding in my head. Gail is the first to notice when Maggie reaches them, and she nudges Bridgett. Rae’s guitar sounds like radio static.
I see what comes next like I’m reading a comic strip panel by panel. I should be running, but I feel like if I step away from this tree I will collapse and fall through the grass and slip between the molecules of the earth and out into the void to drift along like a stray thought looking for a mind to ride. Rae and Bridgett and Gail all squint up at Maggie Andrews, and now Mirielle has turned her head because Maggie just said something. She’s talking and they’re listening. Gail glares at her like she wants to throw a brick, which would be awesome. Bridgett now pretending not to care or even notice she exists, but Mirielle gives Maggie Andrews her full attention until all of a sudden she glances past her arm and now Mirielle is looking directly at me. At my face.
Now, of all times, now my muscles regain their autonomy and fortitude and my reptilian brain is like Go!, but of course this would be the worst time of all possible times to run or even to move an inch in any direction. But I have to move. The body won’t stay still. So my right shoulder slumps and my left arm wraps around my stomach like that’s a cool kind of pose, and I sort of turn my chin up and pretend I’m checking out the leaves on that tree over there.
In my peripheral vision I see Gail doubled over laughing her ass off and Rae has put her phone away and is peering over her red-tinted sunglasses and even Bridgett has this amused-yet-detached smile going on. The only change in Mirielle is that the skin between her eyes has scrunched up into a turtle’s neck and her head has cocked a few centimeters to the side.
By the time Maggie Andrews turns around and points at me—I guess just to verify that yes that is the weird girl who lies in bed late at night wishing she could peel off your knee brace an inch at a time—and Mirielle gets up and starts walking toward me, by this time I’m not even really here anymore. My body is here. My body, which wants to run but has been given strict orders against it and is now being approached by nothing less than the primordial manifestation of my unquenchable desire, is most definitely here. But my mind is up in the branches. I’m staring at a fresh sprig jutting out of the knotty elbow on a low limb, thinking maybe I’m doing my best to pretend not to notice that she is seven feet away and closing.
“Hey, um, hi,” Mirielle says—and trust me even this sounds succulent coming from her. “Your friend said you wanted to talk to me?”
At this point the terror is almost funny. It’s pathetic how funny the terror is. Hilarious. My conscious mind, somewhere high above, would laugh if it were still connected to a respiratory system. I can’t look at her. When I finally point my face in her general direction my eyes drop. Now I’m watching her knee, finding some strange sanctuary there. I notice a white tag folded up and tucked into the brace’s upper edge.
“She said that you said that you—” Mirielle stops a foot or so away. Her skin releases this sun-baked girl smell that when it hits me it’s like a miracle my knees don’t buckle, “—want to make out with me.”
This is what I hear first, before Mirielle says what she’s about to say. Then when she says it for reals, I hear: “—want to be my girlfriend.”
But she doesn’t actually say that either. What she really says—and what takes me fifteen seconds to backtrack and reprocess—is, to my eternal relief: “—want to join our group.”
I notice Maggie Andrews snickering in the background. Gail pantomimes fellatio behind her back. I’m still processing what just happened.
“Look,” says Mirielle. “I can totally understand where you’re coming from. Totally. And like, I think it’s so brave of you to even ask, but, it’s just—well, you seem pretty cool and everything, but you’re, you know, a freshman. And we’re seniors and there’s a way these things work, right? I mean, we graduate in a few weeks and then we’re gone. It wouldn’t even be fair to let anyone join at this point, not even a junior or something. Is this making sense? I hope this is making sense. But I want you to know we’re totally flattered, okay? By the thought.”
If my jaw has dropped and I am gaping or drooling it’s not my fault. I don’t even have the presence of mind to focus my awareness anywhere but on her brace and listen to the lilt in her voice, much less to will the muscular contractions required to adjust my body. Fuck you, Maggie Andrews, but thank you at the same time you horrible bitch for not telling her what I’m really feeling, and on top of it all for somehow making Mirielle get up and walk all the way across the Yard to talk to me. To me. My skin starts melting, sweating, flushing with relief and oh my god first contact, a thing I never calculated would ever happen. Ever. I should probably be making some sort of reply right now.
“That’s cool,” I say, entirely unaware as to whether I have just used a nonchalant inflection or an overly excited that’s-so-super-cool inflection.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you,” she says. “Your name’s Lily?”
“Layla,” I say. Layla? Where did that come from? Lexie. My name is Lexie. I just corrected her with a name further off the mark than her own mistake. Who does that? “Lexie, actually, is my real name, but sometimes I go by Layla,” I quickly recover. I guess. “You can call me Lexie, though. You should.”
“Lexie,” she says. Not only has she just said my name using her own lips, but now she’s extending a hand like I’m supposed to touch it. I think this actually happens. I think we shake hands. In my mind it’s more like a smudge where time and space get all jumbled up, and before I know it whatever has happened has happened and she’s walking back to her friends. And I’m pretty sure the bell just rang because they’re all getting up off the grass and Maggie Andrews is already long gone. Some freshmen who don’t know any better sprint toward the doors. Most of the older kids play it chill, working hard to be as late as possible. Bridgett folds her paper bag neatly inside a second paper bag. Rae puts her guitar back in its case. Gail prods her until Rae digs out a loose tear with her middle finger and flips Gail off with it.
I start to perceive things around me again. Brooks continues to place pebble after pebble in precise rows along the various interlocking blades of grass on top of the fire hydrant, and he has not noticed the bell or the hordes of kids trampling past him, swarming toward the door, sucked through like into a whirlpool. He looks so much like his brother today, which has been happening more and more. Pretty soon he’ll start growing sideburns. The last time I saw Derwin he was the age Brooks is now. I’m fascinated by siblings because I’ve never had one and never will. Brooks has two brothers. Mirielle used to have a brother but now she’s all alone like me. That was a first, when Jason died, because I’d never known anyone who killed himself before. Sometimes I can tell when his memory flashes across Mirielle’s face like an electric shock.
The girls have coupled now, Mirielle with Rae and Gail with Bridgett. My head is loose on my neck, tethered to Mirielle’s every movement, and it’s not until Gail shrieks, “Oh. My. God!” and points across the Yard, do I fully regain a sense of self. The girls react to Gail’s call, looking in unison at a muffin of a bunny sniffing around the edges of its own shadow under the row of nipple-budded rosebushes.
Bridgett’s squeal sounds like she’s stifling a sneeze. Rae likes to remain aloof to girly delights, but I can see adoration in there somewhere. Mirielle sighs and swoons. She says “Ohhhhh,” in a spiraling pitch, and from the raw materials of this audio byte I can almost imagine how her onrushing orgasm might sound. I try, anyway. To imagine. Eyes closed. Lips parted.