The first step is to fall in love with the only boy that ever remembered your name. His charmed smile and kind eyes wage a coup against reason and you don’t even notice. Ryan snakes an arm around your waist and your heart flips. “I like that you have some meat on your bones,” he whispers to you, pinching your side. “The girls I date are usually bony.” You automatically hold your breath, sucking in the fat that cleaves to your hips and middle. Martina, the last girl he dated, boasted a 00 jean size, and his summer fling, Steph, had collar bones that could be registered as lethal weapons in all fifty states. The Rice Krispie Treats your mom snuck into the side pocket of your backpack churn in your stomach. You wish she put weights in there instead. Then, at least, studying would count as exercise. But you hate sweating. And celery. Your t-shirt feels like a second skin, clinging to the valleys of your stomach. His grip is too tight and you feel the fat pinch between his long fingers. You try to leave, “Math homework,” you say. He tells you to do it later and leaves a trail of kisses down your neck. One assignment won’t affect your grade that much.
You haven’t done homework in a month. That’s fine because math can’t kiss you back. The tests on the fridge slump, curling from time and lack of achievements. Your mom asks if you’ve gotten any of your tests back, cracking a mom-joke about the fridge looking bare. Except that every grainy inch of it is crammed with magnets from each state your dad went to rehab. “The Rehab Tour” your mom had joked. Good one. You mumble that your teachers are swamped with work in the middle of the semester. She puts another batch of cookies in the oven. You tell her that you’re going to the library to study. Your mom puts chocolate chip cookies from the cooling rack in a tin for a studying snack, but you throw them in the garbage cans out front as soon as you’re out of sight. Her cookies are pillows of chocolate and your breath catches as they arc into the trash. Pull your shirt down over your hips and take a detour to his house. He kisses you the way they do in movies: his face crushed against yours. His lips are slow and smooth against you, while yours are clunky and inexperienced. But in that moment, cradled in his arms in his unfinished basement, it feels like love. The warmth of his chest envelops you like an old blanket protective and safe. Did your dad ever kiss your mom like that, before he started drinking?
She brings him Tupperware containers exploding with Mexican Wedding cookies when she visits him. They are gunked with too much powdered-sugar, messy and over-the-top, like him. Can kisses do that? Lock you into his gravitational pull until you’re too far gone to turn back? More dust collects on your books and in Ryan’s arms you can’t recall what a prime number was even if you wanted to. The midterm is tomorrow. The library closes. You are still in his arms.
You won’t notice yourself changing, not at first. But it’s inevitable, like your dad’s tenth relapse. Don’t fight it. Ryan makes an off-handed comment that you never do anything he wants to do. At the first hint of disappointment, your heart rate skyrockets and cold sweat beads down your back. So you agree to go to his boring car meets even though you tell him you hate going, they always reek of weed and none of his friends so much as acknowledge that you’re there. But you need him. You need him and he doesn’t need you. So you tag along, following him around like a baby duck and coo at the lowered, rusty GTIs and Jettas haphazardly parked in the vacant lot. Bro enters your vocabulary more than you’d ever hope to hear, let alone say. You even start dressing to fit in, which mainly consists of hiding greasy waves under a snapback and wearing Calvin Klein underwear with low rise jeans so the band winks overtop. You ignore the push up bra effect for your side fat. You haven’t eaten cookies, but they hang around your hips like an over-protective brother. You hope he notices how hard you’re trying. You hope it’s enough.
Next, wait for your best friend to leave. You think this is impossible. A ten year friendship can withstand anything. You’ve endured Lizzie McGuire getting cancelled and Sarah Pratt taking Derek to the formal instead of Lisa. You’ve huddled together in matching ugly Christmas sweaters and smeared mascara because your dad was rushed to the hospital. That trip—there would be many others, but this was the first–your mom baked every cookie in her Pillsbury recipe book arsenal, the flour seamlessly fused with her pale hands. That time was the scariest.
By the fifth time you and Lisa had the drill down. You ride your bikes to get pints of ice cream, paid for in quarters from your piggy bank. It was always Chocolate Therapy, two spoons, and two heads pressed together. When Lisa got her wisdom teeth out, her face was bloated and drooling. Chocolate Therapy. Your mom’s face was flour white with red blotchy eyes. She made another mom-joke that Chocolate Therapy was cheaper than real therapy. She dug her spoon into the container and swiped a mountain full of ice cream, fitting it all in her mouth and choking on it.
Lisa buys Chocolate Therapy tonight. A solo bike rides down a wet road. A single pair of tires sloshes through puddles, kicking up mud on her faded jeans. One spoon peeks over the top of the container. One spoon and four servings. She takes a deep breath, preparing herself for the density of the pint. Lisa hopes that each spoonful of melting therapy will evaporate the image of her long-term boyfriend underneath a freshman cheerleader. That freeze-dried brownies and congealed dairy could erase his smug face when she walked in. Or worse, her best friend walking away. You were at Ryan’s, watching a documentary and snuggling your face deeper into his chest.
It ends with a walk to the car. You walk out to your car with Lisa and there are daisies tucked under the windshield wipers. Ryan steps out from behind your shitty Hyundai armed with your favorite candy. You squeal and run to him. He sweeps you into his arms and you never imagined anyone could lift you off your feet. Ever. Lisa rolls her eyes, a habit incurred from years of sitcoms and two older sisters. The eye roll was an imperative currency in her household growing up; for the bathroom, the last cookie, and the remote. While you are flying above her in Ryan’s outstretched arms, she rolls her eyes so hard they nearly leap off of her face. “We get it,” she mutters. Ryan drops you to your feet, wrapping his arms around you. You both laugh, his smile presses into your cheek. Lisa slams the passenger door, visibly frustrated with her arms crossed. Ryan brushes a stray tendril from your eyes. “Frozen yogurt tonight. Me and you. Documentary on Netflix. What do you say?” Lisa leans over and honks the horn repeatedly until you finally break free of his touch. “JESUS! Of course, but can it not be the Banksy one? We watched it like ten times!” You giggle and kiss him, running to the driver side with your hands over your ears. Lisa angrily slumps down in her seat, knowing that you won’t remember the plans you made a week ago for a movie and Chocolate Therapy. Knowing that you’ll blow her off. Again and again. And she wonders if ten years can replace dignity and loyalty.
Mom gets the call. Dad relapsed. Again. His sobriety is as fleeting as time. The hospital begins to feel like a family reunion. Your mom sends the nurses Christmas cards, and all of them know you by name and are armed with an ample supply of awkward hugs. Your mom paces outside of his hospital room. You call Lisa from the payphone. No answer. No Chocolate Therapy. You call Ryan. You sputter into the phone all of the things you’ve been too afraid to say in person. The Rehab Tour, your mom’s cookies, Chocolate Therapy. You wish you didn’t have to leave it in a voicemail where it can be quickly ignored and erased. But what choice did you have? You never go into your dad’s hospital room. Seeing him from the hallway, slumped in a backless gown with tubes sprouting from him like particularly fragile weeds, makes it real. He is always in and out of the house. Mostly out. You honestly cannot remember the title of his last job or the last time he even had a job. Your mom is more ATM to him than wife. If you never go in, he is still the guy that rented It Takes Two and brought you Reese’s Cups. He watched it with you three times because you kept falling asleep on his chest at the exact same part. You sit in the waiting room and read bad magazines. This one is fifteen years old. You think you remember reading the horoscopes a few hospital trips ago. There was an article about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen; you read that one before, too, but this time you could have cried right then and there, big, ugly tears that leave ruddy splotched-cheeks and turn your nose red. Lisa is never going to call you back. You chose Ryan over a ten year friendship. You aren’t even sure if he is going to call you back. Or if he was worth it. How do you deal with this by yourself? You never had to be alone with it. In the waiting room or at home.
This is the final step of getting lost. Ryan says he found a new girl that’s different from anyone else he’s ever met. He met her at the car meet when your dad was dying. When the nurses tried to resuscitate him. When the heart monitor bleeped over and over like gun shots and your mom collapsed from shock. When you took the bus home because you couldn’t face it. Apparently Ryan hardly checks his voice mail these days. He says that you and he have too much in common. It’s too boring, he says. He talks about her bouncy blonde hair and how she paints. She’s gorgeous, he says. He talks about how cute she is with paint-stained fingers. And she’s a vegan. You bite back rage. He prattles on about her and you wonder if he lifts her off the ground or brushes hair from her face. Maybe he kisses her in way that makes her hold on beyond a reasonable doubt. You wonder if she likes documentaries. He kisses you on the cheek and you pretend that your hair doesn’t smell stale and oily. Does her hair smell like that? Do vegans use shampoo? He speeds out, his car scraping the lip at the end of the driveway. The snapback feels too tight and you spent a paycheck on underwear that he won’t get to see. You wonder if he’ll bring you up in conversation. Will she be jealous? Probably not. You slink into the house. Your lower lids act as a dam against the threatening tears, but it bursts when you walk into Disney re-runs of Lizzy McGuire. You want to call Lisa. Tell her about the hippie Ryan dumped you for. Tell her about your dad. Dead. Lifeless. Devoid of Life. You still can’t get your head around it. Can ice cream fill a vortex swirling in the center of your chest? Blood thumps in your ears. Good. At least you’ll have a new pain to focus on. There are no cookies waiting for you when you walk inside. The air is cool, rather than its usually oven-related sticky heat. Your mother is sitting numbly on the couch. This time her arms are not pasted with flour up to her elbows. They are clean. Spotless. You haven’t seen the freckle on her forearm in years. A new magnet is added to the collection. This one from the funeral home on the corner. New wrinkles crease her eyes and a new vein bulges from her forehead. A black dress with tags is draped over the kitchen chair. You sink to the ground, wishing you felt your dad’s flannel pressed against your dreaming cheek. When you felt safe. For the last time.
Jenna graduated summa cum laude from Ocean County College with an Associate’s in Liberal Arts. She transferred to Stockton University, where she is currently enrolled, majoring in Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing, and minoring in Writing. She has been published in a few small publications. She edited for the Sojourn, which is a school-affiliated magazine about South Jersey history. She aspires to be an editor, while continuing to write, and hopefully revealing a silent truth about the human condition.