That night, I fell asleep in Leonard’s bed, and we woke up holding hands. My father asked me when I came home from school if I thought of him as a hotel clerk and I said, “No, why would I think that,” and he said, “Because you don’t come home all night and then waltz in like this house is some place you’re checking into for the night.” He sighed and said, “I’m too easy on you. I let you walk all over me,” and I said, “Maybe you’re too hard on me, ever think of that?”
I was sorry immediately afterward, and I went into his bedroom and told him that I wouldn’t do it again and that I think of him as my dad, not the guy who checks me into my room, and I knew it was wrong to stay out all night but I fell asleep at Izzy’s house and her mom drove us to school the next day.
“Well, that’s not the first lie you’ve ever told me, and I know for a fact it won’t be the last,” he said.
Leonard was held back a year in first grade because he brought a bullet to school and showed it to a bunch of girls and told them that it was a pill you shove up your butt to keep you from farting.
“No way,” I said when he told me the story. “I can’t believe they made you repeat first grade for that.”
“It wasn’t just the bullet. I wasn’t a very good student either. You knew that, right?”
When Leonard was in first grade, he taped 10 sheets of paper together and drew a penis that was long as a scroll and told his art teacher that it was one looooooooong winky. He brought his mother’s Victoria’s Secret catalogs to school and asked the other boys in his class to rub their wieners against the pictures of the girls’ butts, and this one girl ratted him out and told the teacher that Leonard was rubbing magazines on other boys’ peanuts.
These are flaws, I thought when Leonard told me these stories. These are ways in which you will never be perfect and the more imperfect you are, the less likely I am to lose you because you will need someone in your life who loves you no matter how many flaws you have, and please, please, please let me be that person. Let there be no one else.
When my brother was in kindergarten, he confessed to me that he sometimes stuck his finger down his throat to make himself vomit.
“Just to taste it,” he said. “I’m not doing it again.” Neither of us understood. I called my friend Abigail and asked her what she thought about a five-year-old with an eating disorder.
“Wow,” she said. “If someone as young as your brother can have body issues, then this is one messed-up society we’re living in.”
When I take my brother to the playground behind our house, sometimes I forget to look after him, and end up thinking about my own troubles. Once, I saw him sitting next to a swing set with two balled-up fists and looking like he was really concentrating on something. When I asked him why he was sitting there like he wanted to punch someone, he uncurled his fists and showed me what he had inside.
“It’s glass,” he said.
Another time, I told my brother a story I had heard about a woman who stood in line for 48 hours straight to win 10 thousand dollars and ended up exploding from drinking too much water and holding in her pee, and the next day I noticed he was drinking water like a madman and shaking his leg like he needed to go to the bathroom.
“I don’t want to explode,” he said to me.
“You don’t have to explode. That woman? She chose to hold it in for two days because she wanted the money. No one’s giving you a prize for not peeing, and even if they were, you know better. Right? The moral of that story is to not hold in your pee. That’s what you got out of it, right?”
When I was younger, I pushed my flat, nothing-chest against the window, hoping someone would walk by and praise me. At school, my teachers tell me they’ve never had a student as smart and thoughtful as me. In English class, my teacher blacks out my name and makes photocopies of my essays and distributes them to the whole class as an example of “The best thing I’ve read in my fifteen years of teaching.” I’ve never gotten less than 97% on any of my assignments or tests. I’ve done so much extra credit for chemistry that my teacher tells me it’s literally impossible for me to earn any higher of a grade, and when I ask him exactly what grade I do have, he said, “One-hundred-and-six percent. You have a grade that is six percent higher than perfect.”
At the end of my sophomore year, Leonard and I had been officially dating for about six months, and this girl Lindsey Testa, who tried to copy off me all year in pre-calc, put red paint on my chair to make it look like I had perioded myself while I was out delivering our final exams to the main office because I was the only person Mrs. Nicolson trusted. As soon as I sat down and felt the wet, sticky paint on my ass, I started to have a panic attack and stopped breathing for a few seconds and woke up in the nurse’s office to Leonard’s baby face and his long eyelashes blinking so fast I wondered if I was dreaming, but then his hand on my hand revived me and told me that this was real—it was really Leonard telling me that he didn’t give a shit if they expelled him for cutting out early (which was not so farfetched because he had over 100 unexcused absences), and unless they physically restrained him, he was going to take me home, brew some tea, and draw a bath for me, and tomorrow, he was going to poison that bitch and her entire family.
“Don’t talk like that,” I said, even though I liked it. I liked it so much.
Leonard’s mom loves her two dogs the most; her three cats the second most; her two hamsters and their hamster babies, who only lived for a day before being eaten by their parents, the third most; her estranged husband the fourth most; and Leonard and his sister the fifth most.
“That’s still pretty good,” I said to Leonard when he first told me this.
“Bullshit. That means she could give a shit about me. And I could give a shit back.”
“It doesn’t have to just be your parents who love you the most,” I said.
“I honestly don’t care.”
Every weekend he comes over to my house, and my parents let him sleep in the guestroom downstairs, but after they’ve gone to sleep, he sneaks upstairs and crawls into bed with me.
The weekend after I had a panic attack at school, I woke up in the middle of the night and found Leonard looking at me.
“I’ve been looking at you for an hour,” he said. “Just looking at you and feeling lucky.”
“I love you,” I said to him.
“I’m so lucky,” he said to me.
The next weekend he slept over, I whispered in his ear, “I love you so much I can barely stand it.”
“I feel stoned when I’m with you,” he said.
I threw the covers off of us and sat up. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.
“What? Why did you suddenly sit up?”
I sat there and didn’t say anything.
“Chrissy? Are you going to say anything?”
“You really don’t know why I’m upset?”
“I really don’t know.”
“You really don’t know?”
“Should I just go downstairs? Will you feel better if I sleep in the guestroom?”
“No,” I said. “That’ll make me feel worse. Obviously, that would be the exact worst thing you could do.”
“If I asked you to guess what’s bothering me, what would you say? Make a wild guess. Can you do that?”
“Look, I’m really not into this conversation. It’s like one in the morning. You’re shouting and your parents can probably hear everything you’re saying. I don’t want to go back and forth, trying to guess why you’re upset when you can just tell me why you’re upset and end this bullshit. So tell me or don’t tell me. It’s your choice. But please, either tell me so I know, or don’t tell me, and let me go downstairs and get some sleep.”
“’You make me feel stoned’? You’ve said that so many times, it doesn’t even mean anything. Can’t you come up with something else?”
“Something more original? Is that even possible?”
That night, Leonard slept in the guest bed and I cried in mine. I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and went downstairs, crept into his bed, and told him that I was sorry.
“It make me so sad that you don’t know,” I said. “It makes me feel like you don’t even know me. Doesn’t it weird you out that you did something that’s hurting me this bad, and you have no idea what it was?”
“You know what, Christine? What weirds me out is having the same conversation over and over and over again and never getting anywhere. What weirds me out is that you’d rather me be someone who hurts you knowingly than someone who tries to avoid hurting you on purpose. Is that really what you want? Isn’t it worse if I hurt you and knew the whole time that I was hurting you? Isn’t the point that I didn’t mean to hurt you? And now, this is the part where you step in and say, ‘Well, what hurt me was…’”
We were silent for a long time.
“Are you asleep?” I asked him.
“A little bit.”
“It’s just that I want—” I started to say.
“All you want is everything,” he said.
I pulled the sheets up to his chin and tucked them snugly around his neck, just the way he liked it, and I wondered as I walked upstairs to my room: Did anyone in the whole world want anything less?
While I am staying after school to practice for an upcoming Mathletes competition, while I make posters to publicize the French club’s trip to Paris next spring and then type out a spreadsheet for an upcoming precinct walk with my Youth for the Power of Democratic Change club, Leonard is smoking weed with his friends. He doesn’t remember we’re supposed to go to the mall together to look for a present for his mom’s 50th birthday.
We end up going the next day, but when I find the perfect customizable charm bracelet that we are going to personalize with charms of all of her favorite animals, Leonard reaches into his pocket and remembers that he lent his last 20 to his friend Crispy, even though he knows Crispy won’t ever pay him back, and I end up giving Leonard the 20 dollars I had in my pocket from a science-club bake sale.
While I’m painting the set for an upcoming stage production of The Crucible, he’s tripping in the parking lot of the movie theater with his friends Joey Joe and Matty Matt. They forget to pick me up when I’m finally done painting the iron bars of the jail, and I end up walking home and feeling sorry for myself. While I’m at home, eating dinner and reading Jane Eyre at the same time and trying to remember which vocabulary words Mrs. Roberts told us would be on the test tomorrow, he’s smoking cigarettes with Brigette, the girl who once came to school after drinking an entire bottle of Robitussin cough syrup.
When I’m in Boston for the mock-trial debate, he calls my hotel room and tells me that he has the best idea for my next play.
“I realized something about your family that I think is truth as embodied by truth.”
“Truth as embodied by truth?”
“There’s a family of geniuses who live in a house and encourage each other to be geniuses.”
“I don’t get it. How do they encourage each other to be geniuses? What does this have to do with my family?”
“These genius people are all related, and all the geniuses are cooped up in a mansion together and they communicate by nonhuman sounds and they’re all writing a long poem that has no end, and in the movie, the mother has a neck like a swan and the father has feet like crows. You’re in the movie too. In the movie, you’re wearing a crown on your head because you’re my queen and your minions sleep by your feet.”
“Please,” I whisper. “Please, I begged you before I left not to call me if you’re tripping. I begged you to call me before or after, but not during. Do you remember that? Please don’t make me cry in front of everyone.” When I hang up the phone, my roommates, Emma and Cory, look at me, and for a minute, I think they pity me.
“Does he always call when you’re apart?” Emma asks me.
“Sort of. He calls me at weird times.”
“I’d kill to have a boyfriend who checks up on me like that,” Cory says, jumping on the bed and clutching a pillow to her chest. “I bet you guys spend every weekend together.”
A few minutes later, the phone rings again and Emma and Cory wink at me and leave the room to find a vending machine and to “give you sexy bitches some privacy.”
“Hello,” I say into the phone.
“Christine, we just came up with the most amazing idea for a play that we want you to write.”
“Is it about a family of geniuses?” I ask.
“It’s about this family who live up in the mountains, secluded from everyone, and they’re geniuses…”
I cover the mouthpiece with one hand and with my other hand, I cover my mouth and begin to cry.