I really debated putting this up, as I'm extremely fond of this story, and really don't want crits. But, then, I thought, if I am ever going to take this story anywhere, I need thoughts on it. So...it's up. I just need to take a deep breath. *breathes*
The very first thing you notice about Lanie Fitzgerald is her thinness. There is no philosophical conclusion to make about someone at first sight. Her hair is dark and lank and her skin is pale. She looks very undernourished, really. Maybe she is anorexic, but you don’t know. All you know is that she’s thin.
One thing that comes from being Lanie’s best friend for ten years is that I know everything beyond her thinness. I knew her when she was still Ashley Carmichael, when she had a puppy named John Denver, Jr. I know her favorite song, color, movie, candy, and musical. I know her deepest, darkest secrets, and I know what it means when her brow arches just so. I know that Lanie has never been anorexic, she’s just always been thin.
But standing here, looking at her gravestone, John Denver, III whimpering at my side, I can’t figure out what I didn’t know about her. How could it have ended like this? I give an odd sort of unconscious shrug. The clouds are shifting between gray and white, gray and white, over mine and John Denver, III’s heads. He doesn’t notice, but I do. They are moving so slowly, these clouds. With Lanie heavy on my mind and heart, I can’t help but relate these clouds to her and me. At first I think that she is the gray clouds, because gray is a moody mix between black and white, the good and the bad, the light and the shadows. Then, I change my mind. The gray clouds are far too overbearing to be Lanie. No, I am the gray clouds, boisterous and selfish, and she is the wispy white clouds, few and far between.
I met Ashley Carmichael on a sunny April day in the kiddy park down town. She was seven and I was eight, and she was sharing her cherry Popsicle with a shaggy black puppy. Its tiny pink tongue was enthusiastically darting in and out of its mouth, licking the Popsicle with as much control as its squirmy little body could muster. She was sitting cross-legged on the ground, one hand gripping the Popsicle, and the other resting serenely on the ground next to her. I was overcome with excitement upon seeing the puppy, and before my mother with her thick strand of pearls could jump to any conclusions about this tiny girl with unwashed hair and a threadbare dress, I rushed to her.
“What’s her name?” I asked, reaching down and tugging on its frenetic tail, assuming anything that cute and fluffy had to be a girl, because boys were icky.
“John Denver, Jr.,” she said as if it were welded onto its back.
"John Denver, Jr.?” I was appalled at this name choice, as the puppy should obviously have been Princess or Cuddles.
“Yes. And I’m Ashley.” She extended her hand as far as it would reach. Her fingernails were long and scraggly and caked with dirt, but I took it anyway.
“I’m Cameron.” It’s safe to say that we already knew each other’s name, as we were in the same third grade class, but Ashley Carmichael was always quiet and dirty, and I played with the little girls with sundresses and matching ribbons in their hair.
John Denver, Jr. wiggled and whined because he had slurped up the last bit of melted Popsicle that had pooled red in the sand of the playground.
I was going to ask them to play with me. I wanted to go on an adventure with this scraggly girl and her scraggly puppy, to climb the mountainous slides or ride through the desert on the plastic pink ponies of the merry-go-round, but a shrill voice broke my train of thought.
Ashley’s head snapped in the general direction behind me, and her eyes became clouded. “I need to go,” she said firmly. Pulling John Denver, Jr. by his tail, and then stuffing him under her arm, she headed away from the playground.
The only explanation I can give for our immediate bond is fate. It’s a sappy and cliché term, and Lanie probably just rolled over in her grave, but I can’t help but think that God, or whoever, had their omnipresent hand on our tiny, third grade lives that afternoon. I wouldn’t have made it through life, period, without Lanie to bring me quickly and harshly down to earth. She knew exactly how to ruin a moment. If I was high in the sky about something like Aidan Alexander smiling at me, she’d roll her eyes. But that’s what I loved about her.
Aidan Alexander was the boy every high school girl wanted. He was handsome, intelligent, and suave, but most alluring of all, he was dangerous.
The very first time I saw him, he was leaning casually against the doorframe of the Guidance Counselor’s office, a group of girls who wanted him and guys who wanted to be him were gathered around, chatting and laughing. He was completely somber, looking past them at the moving crowd of the school. He had a cigarette lighter in his hand, lighting it, letting the flame die, lighting it… Aidan has the most intense green eyes I’ve ever seen. They’re not that mucky hazel-green color, they’re green like summer grass. While his left hand played with the lighter, and his right hand pushed those dark bangs from his face, he looked up, caught me staring with those amazing eyes, and smiled. In retrospect, I imagine he was smirking, as I was openly gawking, but I broke out into a sweat around the under wire of my A cup bra, and ran off to class to inform Lanie that the Aidan Alexander had just smiled at me.
But things like that didn’t impress Lanie. I don’t blame her, as her problems at home were so messy and audacious. Of course I had my own family troubles, ones that were less apparent and more deeply rooted.
At night, my mother would come into my room, sweep her lips over my curls, and shut the door softly, the heavy scent of wine and Chanel lingering. When she would lean down and hug me, whispering that daddy was too tired to say goodnight, and would I like her to say my prayers for me? I would nod and breathe her in. My mother didn’t drink unless she went to a party, but I always associate that scent with her. It was always sour and thick and I could smell her perfume on me afterwards.
My mother is one of those women who are so beautiful it hurts to look at them. She has glossy black hair and eyes that match, perfect porcelain skin that tans evenly and is shockingly pretty dull and pale in the winter time. Naturally, I look just like my father. Not that my father isn’t attractive. He’s the exact opposite of my mother, fair and plain, and doesn’t detract from her beauty, but compliments it.
When I was a child, my parents were perfect and happy and in love. They laughed a lot and made dinner together. When I was older, my parents fought a lot, just working through problems that all couples have, but it didn’t mean they weren’t in love. Which is why my mother’s affair was such a shock. At least, to me. My father was so nonchalant and quick to forgive, that I wondered if he wasn’t having one himself. Of course, if he was, he was awfully tactful with it. While my mother would come home late at night, reeking of men’s cologne, my father always smelled like himself –soap and cigars –and came home everyday at four in the afternoon. Or maybe, she really did love him, and he her, but things weren’t perfect.
Lanie’s problems were much more obvious that mine. There was a stagnant aura of negativity in her house, that from the very first time I stepped in it, when I was eight, I could sense. Stale whiskey and cigarette smoke hung thick in the air and coated my eyes and nose and mouth. I hated being over at Lanie’s house, just as much as she hated being at mine. At least my parents were gone most of the time. Lanie’s mother was always around, stuffing her fat hands into a bag of chips and stuffing them into her fat face.
“Ashley!” she called once before Lanie had changed her name. Lanie tried to ignore her. She hated her mother more than I knew someone could hate anyone. But she still answered her after the third or so call, because she still had a deep desire to please her.
Her mother’s fat-encased eyes bulged. “Don’t you take that tone with me! And you answer me when I call you!”
“Well, what do you want?”
“I want respect from my daughter!”
“Realistically, what do you want?”
Her mother’s brows lowered and her expression softened. “I was wondering if you’d walk down to the store and get me some cigs.”
Lanie shrugged. “So you can slowly, painfully kill yourself? Sure.”
She pulled a five dollar bill from her shirt pocket, and pressed it into Lanie’s palm.
We were twelve years old.
Her father was a completely different story. He was tall and thin –like Lanie –and always spoke in a soft, kind voice. He smiled a lot, showing his teeth blackened from tobacco. I liked him when I was younger. He’d always tell me funny stories and make us Coke floats on hot Sunday afternoons.
When she called me gasping, sobbing, because he had left them, left her, I cried, too. I never assumed he had been unhappy, but looking back into his eyes, they were always dull and distant. How was it that a man like her father could be happy with someone like Lanie’s mother? I didn’t know how they had come to be together. There were no happy pictures lining the mantle, no romantic stories of first dates or first kisses.
I think this is when I heard her voice, thin and strained, hoarse from crying, “He’s dead to me.”
“Your father?” I felt lost and insanely guilty, because I would go home to my daddy and wrap my arms around his waist, tell him I loved him.
“God,” she whispered, and broke down into sobs that were wrenched from the very depths of her, and made a lump of pain and sorrow lodge itself in my own throat. “He’s dead to me.”
We were fourteen and Lanie had just started dating this boy named Damien who she was looking forward to bringing home to her father, but broke up with him that very day because she was embarrassed of her mother.
When we were sixteen, Lanie’s mother remarried. He was fat, too, and had a twenty-two year old son who moved in with them. I liked both Dan and his son, Danny, who most everyone called Junior, except for Lanie who called him Rat Face. I remember arguing that his face did not look like a rat’s.
Her eyes had widened, “You like him!”
I sputtered, “I do not!” And I didn’t, but she was always so vindictive towards her family that I felt offended for them, and though I should at least stand up to her about Junior’s “rat face,” as defending his virtue would have been completely fruitless.
“Fine, I believe you. You can’t even say Aidan’s name without having to wipe the drool from your chin.”
Every drop of blood in my body rushed into my face, burning.
“See! Look at that!” She collapsed on the floor, giggling, holding her stomach, pointing at me with an unnecessarily accusatory finger.
It was the next year that Aidan and I started dating.
I looked around for the unfamiliar voice.
“Hey,” I turned around, and to my utter shock and sheer delight, Aidan Alexander was standing in front of me, a Greek god come to bless me with his presence.
I couldn’t find my voice, so I smiled, realized I was exposing my crooked canine, and promptly turned it into a tight-lipped grimace.
“Where are you going?” he asked, taking my books, and picking up the pace beside me.
“English,” I barely managed, that stupid, painful looking grin plastered to my face. “You?”
“Calculus; but there’s a test in there today so I don’t think I’m going to go.”
I couldn’t help it, I was impressed. “Ah,” was all I brilliantly knew to say.
“I was thinking maybe you could come to this party I’m having tonight…”
I grabbed my purse and began to fidget with the strap unconsciously. His eyes fell to my fingers, and then they found mine.
“Or,” he said, the unfaltering confidence in his voice softening, “we could go out for coffee.”
I sighed, relieved. Parties have never been my forte. After years of smelling Mai Tais and chardonnay on my parents when they tucked me in at night, I never felt a strong desire to drink –and so I didn’t. Going out with Aidan was ridiculously important to me, and if he hadn’t changed his question, I might have compromised myself for him. The thing I love most about Aidan is that he never wants me to be anyone different than who I am.
“Coffee sounds great.”
Once, at Lanie’s house, Junior was sitting at the piano bench, strumming on its stained ivory keys, and he asked me why girls like “bad boys” so much. I knew he was referring to Aidan, and I had an answer that surprised the both of us.
“We love a challenge, and the romance of being able to save them.”
He was extremely unsatisfied with this answer. “Have you saved Aidan?” His tone was venomous, and the random music of the piano came to a dead silence.
“No,” I answered honestly. “I don’t think he wants to be saved.”
He turned back around to his piano, playing just as softly and smoothly as he was before.
I’m not in love with Aidan because he’s bad. I love him because he’s good to me. I don’t want to be different around him. He won’t let me be different.
Next to him, I feel like my father. Aidan is beautiful. His bones are fine and structured, his skin is pale and clear. My father’s sandy hair and freckles always looked simple against my mother’s complexity. I had always noticed this about my parents, and since I was little I had wanted a dark partner so that their beauty could radiate onto me like starlight, because when I was alone, I was ugly. But when I first started seeing him, I felt less beautiful than before.
On prom night, I came down our winding stairs in this blue thing with lots of silk and chiffon, and when I saw him, I ran back up them, hiding my face, tears leaking through my fingers, melting my perfect makeup. Even with Lanie and my mother coaxing me gently, telling me I looked beautiful, I still wouldn’t come out. I was crying hysterically about how I would ruin him if I was with him. Finally, my father came slowly up the stairs, I heard his steady footsteps, and pulled my hands away from my face.
He smiled, deep dimples that I didn’t inherit giving him a young, boyish look, “Cameron, you’re beautiful.” My tears came faster, fresh and hot. He wiped his finger under the crease of my eyes, and said, “He’s pacing, he doesn’t know what to do.” I wouldn’t look at him, because suddenly, all of this was his fault. My tiny bones, and sharp features, the freckles that were so prominent on my face and shoulders…it was him, all him. “Look at me! When he saw you he said…Look at me!” he barked, and my eyes shot to his, their mirror image. “He told me you looked like an angel.”
And then I heard his voice, soft to the point where it hurt me to listen, “Cameron, can I see you, please?” When everyone around me moved away, and I saw him, he looked at me. “You look beautiful. I hope I don’t ruin our pictures.”
I wonder often why he puts up with my melodrama. I cry a lot, I always have. Lanie used to say it’s because I’m a pampered princess. It always hurt my feelings, probably because of its truth. I had grown up in such a sheltered home, that I was no more fit to take on tragedy than I was to wrestle a bull. She always had trouble feeling sorry for me. I don’t blame her, as what she underwent and what I underwent were on two completely different spectrums of the tragedy rainbow. Even after my mother’s affair, my parents were still together. I didn’t have to put up with new additions to my family, or a father who called me crying every Christmas Eve, telling me he missed me and he loved me, wondering the rest of the year if he was happy with his other family, or if he had died. Aidan, on the other hand, always listens to me in that serene way of his. For once he stops fidgeting with his cigarette lighter, and rests his hands on his thighs. He’ll nod, or smile, or frown appropriately. Afterward, he may not say anything, or, he may recite an entire Oprah show at me. I like it best when he just grows quiet, my pettiness obviously too hard for him to comprehend, and pretends he’s thinking about what to say to me.
The first real tragedy that hit Lanie was when we were ten years old. I was at her house, playing something like House or Doctor, when we suddenly heard her mother screaming. We ran as fast as we could into the front yard, and before I knew what I was doing, I was ushering a screaming Lanie back into the tiny house, trying to keep her from seeing the matted fur and blood in the road. I obviously failed, as Lanie cried for hours upon hours over the crushed body of her beloved John Denver, Jr. The human body has an amazing way of dealing with grief. She produced more tears in that one day than I had my entire life.
Shortly after, her mother bought her another scraggly puppy, and she fittingly named it John Denver, III.
Finally, the rain drops the clouds have been foreshadowing begin to fall. John Denver, III, pushes his wet nose into the palm of my hand, but I hardly notice. I am not done grieving. My body has not dealt with this yet. I pat his head, now slick with rainwater, assuring him it won’t be long. He whines still, though, and I feel him tugging on his leash.
“Calm down, boy,” I say, but maybe I am talking to myself, because suddenly, my heart is racing, and my throat hurts, and I can’t distinguish the tears from the rain on my face. The leash unwinds from my hand as I fall onto the ground, grabbing a handful of grass and mud and earthworms. “What happened, Lanie? Why didn’t you tell me? What happened?”
She hadn’t answered her phone in three days. I could have just been calling at all the wrong times, but I was worried. I had worried a lot about her recently. All of her sentences seemed rushed, and it had been a while since she had found it necessary to make a derogatory comment about something, or someone. She was quiet and removed, and the skin on her face seemed sunken onto her skull. I had tried to talk to her about it, but she just shook her head and said, “School. It’s just school.” I knew it wasn’t school, but I wasn’t going to make her tell me until she was ready.
Last month Lanie was finally able to afford to move out of her house. She should have been happy and relieved, but I’d never seen her look sadder. She was unpacking her boxes in her brand new apartment, shiny, white and smelling like Pine Sol, and a tear rolled down her perfectly straight nose and fell into the Styrofoam peanuts. I hugged her, but said nothing, because I could tell she didn’t want to talk about anything. I tried to keep my eye on her, I tried so hard. I’d call her and ask her to go the bookstore for coffee, and sometimes she’d go, but most of the time she wouldn’t.
After three days of complete silence from her, I went downtown and parked in front of the pretty brick building, pulling out my key to her apartment, and feeling the need to run through the doors and up the stairs. I fumbled with the lock, and pushed the door open. There was a rank smell, and fear clogged my voice. “Lanie!”
Calling her name, I remembered when she told me to never call her Ashley again.
“Eleanor Roosevelt was such a strong woman.”
“Eleanor? That sounds like an old woman.”
Our voices were faint and distant, but at the same time, I could see our fifteen year old bodies sitting on her Neo-Baroque couches.
“Lanie’s cute. Plus it has meaning.”
“Yeah, you’re right. How about Lanie Fitzgerald?”
“Your mother’s name? But Ashley…”
“Better than my father’s. And it’s Lanie.”
The bathroom door was closed, and there was something thick and black running under the door. I flung the door open and she was lying on the ground, her pants around her ankles, and she was muttering. I assessed the situation quickly, but my mind was flooded with the horror of the scene. Lying next to the toilet was a coat hanger with its hook pulled out into a straight line of wire. There was blood in the toilet, and blood pooled in all the corners of the bathroom.
I ran out the door and screamed until my throat was raw. Her elderly neighbor peeked out the door. “Call an ambulance! Please! She’s hurt!”
I ran back to her, and kneeled on the ground, cradling her head in my lap.
“Dear God, Lanie. Why did you do this? Why did you do this?”
Her eyes were clouded and she shook her head. I felt the tears coming, but I had to force them back. She couldn’t see me cry. Not when she needed me to be strong.
“Why didn’t you tell me? We could have gone to a clinic. It would have been safe and clean.”
She just shook her head. “I was so alone.”
“No! No! You were never alone, never. I love you, you know that. You have to know that.”
“I didn’t…everyone…I was so ashamed, Cameron. It was Junior, Cam. Why did he do it to me?”
Now I’m in the mud, and I can hear his seething voice, “Have you saved him?” He played Beethoven often, but when he did he always added his own flats and sharps and harmonies.
The infection was too deep inside of her. She had gone far too long without treatment. What of modern day medicine? What of modern day miracles?
I am face down in the mud, gasping, choking, my knuckles white around the tombstone. Her epitaph is simple: Remember Lanie.
I have never coped well with tragedy.
John Denver, III has run away from me, hiding somewhere, out of the rain.
Argh, so there you go. A short story three freaking years in the making. Tear it apart to your liking, I'm sort of open to suggestions.