BY: MARISA CRANE
N comes into school late, spinning like the Tasmanian Devil because J told her to and J knows best and honestly she thinks J could use a shave, but she won’t tell him that because he’s sensitive, plus last time J borrowed her weird uncle’s razor he didn’t put it back and she got a spanking for touching things that aren’t hers because of course she knew better than to blame it on the man no one else can see.
She learned that the hard way one summer afternoon while drawing J’s home planet on the sidewalk in front of her mom’s apartment with the chalk she’d stolen from the corner store where the man with the strange accent hums songs she’s never heard before and follows her around while pretending to rearrange the shelves. Anyway, J told her all about the place he was born and the bad ideas that grew from the ground like towering trees and N drew them all, every single one, because J said she was the most wonderful artist on both her planet and his and she believed him just like she believed her daddy when he said he’d Be Right Back. Her mother said daddy ran up a tab he couldn’t pay at the Red Fox Motel and now N doesn’t know where he is but he certainly isn’t Back. J told her that on his planet back was a synonym for alive and she cried for four hours straight while her mother made Steak-umms and talked on the phone in a voice softer and silkier than her own.
The man on the phone was not her good-for-nothing husband, the man who, despite failing to commit to anything longer than a bar tab, repeatedly assured her he didn’t have the up-and-leaving gene, yeah right, as if any man had ever kissed a woman without also imagining how tired that very same kiss would become in just two years’ time.
When N’s mother hung up she knelt down on the gray carpet next to N and hugged her but didn’t ask what was wrong—she could hardly manage her own shit. There was a reason the flight attendants always urged you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else, even if that someone else was your daughter, even if that someone else looked sad and spooked around the eyes, and anyway, her oxygen mask must have been defective, ill-fitting, perhaps it had been designed to fail—her husband (or is he now an ex?) would call this victimization, he filed everything she did under victimization, it was the new hip term husbands passed around sacred husband spaces to justify their husband tempers. She, too, wanted a word for this thing, this fucked-up thing that happened to her and then kept on happening to her. She needed to lie down for a while.
The next day N was working on her intergalactic drawings when her mother found her and smacked her in the back of the head: Where did you learn these things? her mother asked. J told me about them, said N, cowering, still clutching a blue piece of chalk which had been reduced to a nub. Who the hell is J? her mother asked. N looked to her right, to the space where J sat pretzel style on the sidewalk, his straight black hair sticking out through the hole in his backwards hat, wearing a smile that looked nothing like her mom’s when she watched her grown-up shows or even her dad’s back when he still played airplane with her, balancing her body on his feet while she stuck her arms out to the side and pretended to fly. But she knew it was a smile nonetheless, just barely meeting the qualifications, because his teeth were showing and the corners of his mouth were turned upward, but don’t get it twisted, there was nothing pleasant about his expression.
An imaginary friend taught you about dildos? her mother asked, trying to mask her own smile, one that absolutely meets the qualifications, failing to hide it, mixed signals for N who’s rubbing the back of her head. He’s not imaginary, said N. Look, he has dark brown eyes, black hair, ripped jeans, a black t-shirt. He’s a teenager. Teenagers can’t be imaginary, said N, convinced that her mom could see the boy-man with the bad ideas plopped down on the sidewalk with nowhere to go but wherever N goes. You’re a bit old for this, don’t you think? asked her mother, smearing one of the flying dildos with the toe of her sneaker. No, I’m not too old for a friend, said N, standing up and wiping off her pants but only succeeding in adding to the mess of chalk on her pants, a rookie move, she knew better but was frazzled and disturbed by what she could only interpret as her mom’s cruel and unoriginal prank.
It’s half-way through first period when N shows up, spinning spinning spinning while J laughs laughs laughs, and the teacher immediately calls her Therapeutic Support Staff, Z, to come deal with this child because Z knows how N gets, knows that if she comes into school like a tornado, she’ll leave having destroyed anything in her path. J tells her she can stop spinning and she collapses onto the carpet where the teacher reads stupid books almost none of the kids care about, except for maybe the asshole boy that’s always picking fights with N, according to N, but a lot of kids are always picking fights with N according to N.
I don’t know why you make me do this silly stuff, she says laughing, high-fiving J, J who is now donning a black cloak and fangs, the real kind. Help, please come down and deal with her immediately, the teacher says into the phone. What’s that, J? N asks, recovered enough to stand up. Oh okay, okay, I will, she says, running to the back of the room where she crawls inside the coat closet. Look, N is crazy! yells someone who may or may not pick fights with N, we’ll never know.
Shut up, a muffled yell comes from the closet, and some of the kids giggle, some cover their mouths with their hands, a few stomp their feet, and the teacher wants to leave, wants to know if she can call in sick when she’s already at school, wants to travel back to the exact moment she accepted this job and set her decision on fire, no, wants to travel back to the exact moment she decided she wanted to become a teacher and slap the word out of her mouth like the worst cuss word imaginable.
Ignore her, she just wants attention, the teacher says, and the kids seem temporarily satisfied by this assessment, they pull out their sloppy paper-stuffed folders, pass in their addition and subtraction homework, for the most part try to pretend a girl isn’t hiding in the closet talking to herself about about about about …. What is she saying now? Oh, that motels may or may not be separate planets inhabited by dreams that have died and floated out of children’s heads. Dream graveyards, she says. She keeps saying a person’s name. A man’s. She says it like he’s there, sitting in the closet, making it all make sense.
Z arrives and the teacher exhales so sharply Z’s worried the teacher may huff and puff and blow the whole room down, which she supposes wouldn’t be so bad, then she wouldn’t have to hike up her pants and crawl into the closet made for tiny coats and tiny backpacks and look absence in its carved-out eyes, then she wouldn’t have to pretend to know what to do with all that despair, how to spread it out so it doesn’t smother its owner, too smart for her age, observant, overexposed.
What are you doing in here? Z asks once she manages to get down on the floor and peel through the hanging coats like layers of skin the little humans left behind. Hi, Miss Z! I don’t know. J told me to come in here so I did. I like it in here, says N, patting the ground and looking around as if she’s already decided the closet will make a nice home. Oh no, not J. He’s back? says Z. He never left, Miss. What else is he telling you to do? she asks, well aware of what N is capable of when she’s under the influence of J. Oh, all kinds of bad things, N grins, her eyes widening. Like what? Z presses. Today he says I should punch that asshole boy. He said some shit about my daddy the other day and J says we can’t let him get away with that, says N. You know what I’m gonna say to that, says Z, already tired, already depressed about N’s circumstances. I don’t wanna hear it, Miss. That boy needs to pay up, she says, punching her open palm with her fist in what Z assumes is supposed to be an intimidating gesture but looks more like she’s ready to flatten some Play Dough, and Z considers the idea that the body is smarter than the mind, that it knows when it’s being deceived and acts accordingly.
Oh what’s that, J? You think N should come out of the closet and go upstairs with Miss Z to talk about feelings and other crazyyyyyyyyyy things, says Z, holding her hand behind her ear and leaning toward the space to N’s right, hoping that she chose correctly so N won’t know she’s a fraud incapable of seeing J. What, he didn’t say that! No way, says N, shoving the space to her right, yes Z guessed correctly, yes Z does a mental fist pump, will take whatever success she can get, and then N stops, listens closely, and says, Oh my god, you did say that. You’re nuts! You know this lady’s a ghost right? she says as she begins to crawl out of the closet. I’m gonna let that one go, says Z, poking herself in the arm, reaffirming her reality or something like it. J says you look like a packing peanut, says N, laughing. Awesome, thank you, J, says Z, who gives the teacher a nod and points toward the ceiling to communicate that she’s taking N to her office and the teacher smiles like she just got the word that children were cancelled forever.
Upstairs N plops down in a chair and begins rolling backwards around the room and saying, Wheeeeeeeeeeeee, and asking J to speak up. J who still smiles that unsmiley smile, J who clears his throat and mutters, J who doesn’t actually have a home planet, J who until now hasn’t unleashed the worst of the worst, J who until now has been earning her trust, J who prepares to become a real boy by telling her a new truth, quickly pounces on Z, wrestling her to the floor, then ties her hands behind her back, gives her a quick kick, and sticks a gag in her mouth. J grabs N’s chair, spins her around so she’s facing him, and before she can say a thing, he tells her that the only way her daddy will love her again is if she jumps off the 5th Street bridge and learns to fly.
Marisa Crane is a queer, non-binary writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, F(r)iction, Hobart, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Our Debatable Bodies (Animal Heart Press, 2019), and she serves as a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, she currently lives in San Diego, California, with her wife.