The Meaning of Birds is the latest love-filled, heart-wrenching contemporary novel from Jaye Robin Brown, author of Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, and, to no one’s surprise, we’re head over heels for this one too. Plus, we’re not the only ones! Julie Murphy, superstar author of Dumplin’, has this to say of The Meaning of Birds:
“An evocative story of the thrills of first love and the anguish of first loss. This will break you and heal you.”
You’re going to want to listen to Julie, folks. And here’s why:
The Meaning of Birds follows Jess Perez, a high school senior who is reeling from the sudden, unexpected death of her girlfriend, Vivi. The book is told in Then and Now perspectives, which is SO powerful. We get to see Jess and Vivi fall for one another, only to be reminded that they were ripped apart. What’s more, without Vivi, who helped calm Jess’s anger issues and encouraged her to pursue her passion for art, Jess no longer knows who she is. She has trouble controlling her outbursts, and can’t even think of creating anything beautiful with her girlfriend gone from the world. Tears were shed, y’all.
What’s so great about this book, though, is that it’s not just a tear-jerker. It’s charming, funny, and so, so sweet. Add in the positive representation of LGBTQIAP+ relationships (wait until you meet Greer and Eliza, guys!), and you’ve got a truly lovely story we can’t wait for you to read. The good news? You don’t have to wait!
We’re bringing you a sneak peek of The Meaning of Birds right now!
NOW: Three Days After
Hands, hearts, hugs.
I am bombarded at every turn. But I don’t know these hands, these hearts, these hugs. They are peripheral, the entire senior class only seen through the corner of my vision. None of them are the hands, hearts, and hugs I want.
“So sorry, Jess.”
“Really sucks, Jess.”
“How does shit like this happen?”
Best question of the day. How. Does. Shit. Like. This. Happen. And it begins. A collapsing. All of me, falling slowly in on myself.
“Jess, hon.” Mom’s hand lands featherlight on my shoulder. The multiton concrete of my body lists toward the familiar touch. A ragged breath escapes, a tear pools in the corner of my eye, then the pool becomes a river, and I can’t even try to hold it back, it simply flows. Mom holds me, a steadying pressure that is the only thing keeping me from sinking into the cracks in the ground or flying off into the atmosphere.
Voices murmur. It’s a last-minute memorial, hastily put together by Vivi’s parents so the students of Grady High School can grieve as a group. But none of them, no one else in this room, can crawl down into the crater in which I now dwell.
“Let’s go, hon,” Mom whispers in my ear and places a guiding hand on my back. “This is too much for you.”
I let myself be led. More hands, hearts, hugs as Mom and my sister, Nina, walk me toward the door of the youth center.
Classmates I barely know speak as I pass.
“We’ll all miss her.”
“You were lucky to have love.”
Between the thudding ache of my heartbeats, I want nothing more than to yell “Shut up!” They don’t know. They can’t know. This ache is too raw. Too deep. Too mine.
Outside I gulp at the air. But it doesn’t ease the choke. The world, oblivious to my strangulation, spins as usual. Cars drive. Birds fly. The too-hot late September sun presses its rays against me.
“I’m going to run into Whole Foods when I drop Nina off at work. Grab some premades. I know you probably won’t eat, but if you decide to, there’ll be something,” Mom says.
“I can bring home wings, if you want.” Nina’s tugging her Slim’s Hot Chicken apron out from where it’s bunched under me on the seat and hugging my neck too hard at the
My mother and sister argue about the type of nutrition a grieving girl needs. I buckle, then unbuckle my seat belt. As Mom shops for roasted vegetables and fizzy water, I trace the clouds with my eyes, wondering, hoping that there is a more. I can’t imagine a world where I never see her again. I press Vivi’s name on the glass and don’t even
try to dam the river that rages out of me.
At home, Mom draws me a bath, lights a candle, and pours in some Epsom salts. “This won’t take the pain.” She holds her hand to her heart. “But it will help with
any achiness you feel from crying.” She lingers, but what is there to say?
The girl I loved, love, loved is dead. Freakishly. Fast. All we had was a final hug and an I love you and don’t kiss me I don’t want to get you sick because I think I may be getting the flu, then a link of pinkies, a lingering smile, and that always, always, always want in my core. And That. Was. It.
I sink, hold my breath, and open my eyes to watch bubbles pop pop pop on the glassy surface above me, wondering what it would be like to hold myself here.
To die along with Vivi.
THEN : Hidden Talent
Pop. Pop. Pop.
I knew blowing bubbles with gum annoyed my therapist, but she’d been annoying me for three years. Seventh grade. Eighth grade. And now ninth. It only seemed fair. The wrinkle that ran from her left eye down the side of her nose deepened. Success.
Samantha took a deep breath and rolled her pen between her fingers. “Are you ready?”
I shrugged. The truth was, I wasn’t ready. Somehow, I’d made it through my first one hundred and eighty days of North Carolina’s public-mandated high school instruction without getting into a single fight. But next year, there’d be no more safety of the ninth-grade wing.
No more seclusion from the older kids. It would be all the upper grades walking the halls together. It would be me—queer, overly sensitive, overly prone to fists—against
a whole gamut of North Charlotte suburbia kids who were quick to say crap about girls like me. I honestly didn’t know how I was going to stay on my hard-earned, not-so-straight-and-narrow path. Especially since there was also going to be no Samantha. I had a love/hate relationship with my therapist.
She pulled a bag out from her desk drawer. “I’m so sorry I’m leaving you like this.”
“No, you’re not. You can’t wait for your honeymoon.”
“That’s true, but I am sorry I’m leaving my clients, and there’s not a thing wrong with me getting married.”
No. But there was everything wrong with her moving to Seattle afterward.
“You know I’m only a phone call away. We’ve talked about this.”
“And three hours behind. Our schedules are never going to sync.” I knew this because of my relatives in El Paso. I hardly ever got to talk to my grandfather and they were in mountain time zone, only two hours behind us.
She sighed. “Leaving my clients is hard, Jess. Especially you. You’ve come so far since I first met you as an angry, confused twelve-year-old.”
“Yeah, whatever.” I twisted in my seat and looked at the little glass birds that decorated the table beside me. Better than letting her see that I was, maybe, getting a little choked up.
“Anyway, this is for you.” She pushed the brown paper bag across the table toward me.
I shifted and allowed myself to reach for it. There was no stopping this. She’d met a hunk of burning love. I couldn’t really fault her. If given the chance for romance, I’d jump. How many times had I imagined what it would be like to have an actual girlfriend? But it did suck I was losing my therapist, even if it was for love.
I pulled a sketchbook and a pack of pens out of the bag, along with a how-to Zentangle book. “Cool.” I flipped the pages and felt certain I’d never be able to replicate any of the designs.
“This is not a present,” she said.
“It’s not?” I glanced up.
“No.” Her face got that bunched-up look when she was really trying to make sure whatever she was saying soaked into my brain. “This is homework.”
“Yes. Over the year, we’ve worked on a multitude of techniques for you to use in situations when your anger volcano threatens to erupt.”
I rolled my eyes. So many sessions spent charting the sequence of my actions that could have prevented my outbursts. I could map the anger volcano in my sleep. If I’d shut my mouth here, I could have prevented the other person’s reaction. If I’d prevented the other person’s reaction, then maybe I wouldn’t have shoved them. If I hadn’t shoved them, they wouldn’t have pushed me back. If they hadn’t pushed me, I wouldn’t have erupted. Yada, yada, yada.
“Quit rolling those eyes. Show me how much you’ve learned.” She tapped her pen on the table.
“Fine. Clench my fists, spread my fingers, clench my fists, spread my fingers.” I demonstrated the technique. “Breathing.” I took in a deep breath and let it out in a long,
slow exhale. “Walking away while breathing.” I stood up and took steps around her office. “Mental singing.” I broke into an out-of-tune rendition of “You Are My Sunshine.” Samantha poked her fingers in her ears and started laughing. “Okay, okay, you have learned something. Now this.”
I sat back down. “This?”
“Doodling. It won’t work in an active situation, but it will help when something happens in class by keeping you engaged, and thus able to stay out of it.”
“So, the only way for me to maintain my chill is to have no interactions and no friends.”
She groaned. “Jess. That is not what I mean. You have friends.”
“For some people that’s all they need. But I’m serious. Get comfortable drawing over the summer. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover a hidden talent.”
“Not likely.” But the fact that this was our last session brought me around to positivity. “Okay, a hidden talent. Got it. Draw to keep focused on staying in my bubble.”
“Exactly.” She glanced at the clock sitting on her table, then sighed. “You’ll be fine, Jess. You’ve got so much soul. You’re incredibly self-aware even in your mistakes. High school is the tiniest blip in your life. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but you’re made of strong stuff. You’ve got all the skills to keep staying out of conflict, to keep your anger at bay. You will survive and you’ll do it well.”
I wanted to believe her, I really did. But how did you survive without your life raft? When the unexpressed grief over my dad came pushing out of me in middle school, I was a hot mess. Then my mom found Samantha for me.
And now she was leaving.
How was I going to make it without her to talk to every week? I’d told Mom I didn’t want, or need, another therapist. But dealing with my stuff alone? Or just on the phone? I hoped Samantha was right about this doodling stuff. Something to keep me chill. Even though something didn’t seem nearly as effective as someone.
Someone. Now there was a thought. My brain took off in loops and spirals. If Samantha could meet the love of her life . . . well. There were over fifteen hundred kids roaming the upper halls at Grady. Maybe being out of freshman hall wouldn’t be total torture. Maybe there was someone I didn’t know about. Someone who might want to hang out with me.
NOW: One Week, One Day After
The whir of the blender wakes me up. My smoothie-obsessed mother has decided grief is fed with chia seeds, kale, and banana. I’m pretty sure cold pizza works better, but whatever.
I’ve had a week of excused absences, but Grady High decided that five days is all a life is worth, and they’ve said I have to return to classes or my absences will give them the power to keep me from passing my classes this semester. Going back to school is the last thing in the world I want, but my mother will disown me if I don’t graduate.
Emma Watson looks up at me with her impassive copper-colored eyes. The cat knows everything and nothing at all. She blinks. “Yes, Jess, you can go” is my interpretation. I think she just wants my pillows all to herself again.
A knock on my door. “Jess, Mom says come down for breakfast.” Then the creak of my doorknob. My sister has never respected my privacy.
She slides inside my room, then onto the bed with me, and cuddles me like I’m her almost daughter, not her little sister. “Sissy, I’m so sorry. I know how hard this is.”
And that’s the thing. We all do. Me, my mom, Nina. We did this grief stuff, frontward and backward, nine years ago when Dad got blown up by an IED in Afghanistan. But Nina’s pain has dimmed. She doesn’t get how I feel like someone took a dulled knife and sawed through my body. All the fester and throb of the old grief acts like a deeply buried splinter brought to the surface. But instead of releasing, it digs in again, a sharp reminder that life sucks and love hurts and it’d be a hell of a lot easier to seal my heart off forever. But I don’t tell Nina any of that.
“I’m fine.” I wriggle out of her grasp and for once can relate to Emma Watson. “Let me get dressed.”
“Are you sure? Do you want me to come to school with you?”
“Nina . . .”
“Fine.” She huffs off the bed. “I’m only trying to help.”
She leaves and I pull out jeans, a faded black T-shirt, and out of habit, the pale gray hoodie. A gift from Vivi. I put it back, take it out again, crumple it into a tight ball, and bring it to my nose as if somehow, the essence of Vivi will release from its threads. Paralysis hits me. How will I walk through this day of first bells and morning announcements and class changes and whispers without Vivi by my side?
Bad enough to be one of the few out queer kids at school but now I’m the queer girl with the dead girlfriend.
“I don’t think I can go.”
Emma Watson barely tilts her head in response.
I pull on the hoodie and wrap my arms around myself. The last day she was at school replays in my mind. The day after’s phone call with her mom in my memory. I haven’t had the nerve to listen to messages. I can’t listen to Vivi’s voice yet. I can’t be reminded of all the texts and messages I’ve erased. If only I’d known, I would have saved everything forever.
Another tap tap on the door.
“Jess, baby, are you ready?” Mom is nothing but kind. Holding space, she said. I will hold space for your grief. Mom knows grief.
One deep breath. A choked breath. A breath that stops and locks at the concrete block of my chest and heart. Fuck. “I’m ready.” It’s a lie.
I step into the hallway of our crappy rental house. Mom takes my hand as if I were eight. My grief surges. Is Mom feeling it, too? Like a vestigial limb? She squeezes in response to my thought. “You’re not ready.”
I shake my head.
“Baby. It’s okay. You’re never going to be ready, but the only way forward is forward. It will be hard. It will be crushing at times. But all you have to do is exist in this day. Breathe. Try to eat a little. That’s your only job right now. Get through the days. Got it?”
“Get through the days,” I repeat.
“Good,” she says.
Dad died nine years ago, but I still find Mom crying sometimes.
That’s a lot of days.
I take the smoothie she hands me, but also grab a go-mug of coffee. Black with heaping tablespoons of raw sugar, how Vivi taught me. I used to hate coffee before. Before. Before and after. After. My brain races through the demarcations of my life and I want an eraser.
“I’m going to drive you today, how’s that?”
“Okay.” I don’t want to be stuck in the car with Nina and her voracious sad eyes. It’s weird. My sister has owned my grief like it’s hers. I’ve heard her talking to the boyfriend du jour on the phone. Dramatizing my situation to make herself more interesting, or needing, or something. It bothers me.
Mom pats my leg as she drives. “Today will be difficult. I’ll leave work and come for you if you need me to. Have the office call.”
I nod, then as we pass the church cemetery down the road . . . “Did the Bouchards . . .”
Mom’s pat turns to a grip. “Yes, when the ashes come back they would like us to come to the lake house. For a ceremony.”
I’m lucky. Vivi’s parents embraced me. I was like another daughter, they’d said. Someone who sees our girl as perfect as we do. My mom was unsure about the girl-girl
thing initially. But after losing Dad, she became a warrior who knew exactly which battles to fight. She did her best to make it no biggie when I told her I was in love with a Vivi not a Victor, even though I knew she was worried about my extended family’s reaction and society in general.
But I wasn’t worried. People can see when you’re happy. Vivi and I had plans mapped out for years into the future. Our relationship was near perfect, hardly any detail left to
But now. So over. There’s no working out dead.
Mom pulls the car in front of school. I fight the river raging inside of me. It’s time to swim upstream, battle the current as I walk past hands, hearts, hugs, to my locker. Without Vivi.
I’m stitching it together. Holding the parts of me tight as I put one foot in front, repeat. Making my way, not making eye contact. Holding my chin up. Then.
“Sick dyke deserved it anyway.”
I galvanize. “What?”
A boy laughs by his locker, a timid girl planted under his arm, and challenges me with a jut of his chin.
The river turns solid. A tsunami of exploding grief leaps out of me and my god it feels good to rage. Samantha’s face pops briefly into my mental vision but I blink her
away. She left me. Vivi left me. I’m not thinking anymore. I’m forehead to forehead and knee to groin and boot on hand before someone grabs me by the hood and pulls me off the guy, who’s left whimpering and confused as to what he’d unleashed with his comment.
In the office, the throb of my collided skull is alive. The most alive I’ve been in a week. The truth is I’d like to take down the school, brick by brick, if I could. I want to send lava hurtling through the hallways. It’s better than caving in to the abyss that threatens to swallow me whole. I will not be grief’s bitch.
“Jessica Perez.” Vice Principal Williams sounds confused as he rolls the syllables over his tongue. It’s not a name he’s had to say before. I’d worked for all of high school to keep it that way, doodling my way through when things got sticky.
“That’s me.” My voice is gruff, tough, a timbre to fell the tallest tree.
“Fighting isn’t tolerated at this school. I understand you’ve had some distress but if this happens again you’ll be suspended.” With manicured nails, he pulls a glossy black pen from a coat pocket and scrawls onto a pad of pink paper. “A pass, after you stop by Mrs. Swaley’s office.”
I groan to myself. Swaley is the head tripper. She’s not genuine like Samantha. She doesn’t really care about helping. She’s a smiler and faux friend, worming her way in,
trying to get you to talk and spill all the secrets so she can lap them up like milk and purr her way home to her husband and boast about how wonderful it is to be helping
young people on the daily. I let the paper glide into the nearest trash can. The tardy is better than Swaley. The reality is, I would give almost anything to punch the shit out of someone, anyone, anything again.
Instead I’m faced with the static of whisper and the heat of stare. All eyes turn as I push down a too-narrow path between rows of desks to get to the back of my English class. Never before have I been so grateful for the somnolent drone of Mr. Alistair’s voice and the intense focus it takes for the rest of my classmates to stay awake and end
THEN : Stork Rhymes with Dork
Nothing to look at here, people, nothing to talk about.
I took a deep breath, stepped onto the bus, and willed away the stares. I planned on making it the next three years without incident.
At least this part of the school day had an established pattern. I sat directly behind the driver in the window seat and curled away from the door. It had been a good strategy last year. Nobody messed around at the front of the bus, so my rides were uneventful. I’d gone from talked about too much in my middle school bully years, to not talked about at all. You make me happy when skies are gray.
Tumbling from the bus to the walkway to the crosswalk to the front doors of Grady was different though. In freshman academy, they’d kept us relegated to one wing of the school, one entrance, one locker hall. This year it was open season on sophomores, just as I’d feared.
I walked through the halls keeping my head down, my shoulders rounded, my dad’s old camo backpack resting on one side, and my new Sakura pen set that I’d bought— thanks Samantha, and your hidden talent talk—tucked in an outside pocket. A cluster of boys from my old middle school, joined by a few new ones they’d latched onto in
freshman academy, tried to incite me as I passed them, “Hey, freakshow, want to fight?” The laughter from the group followed me down the hall as I heard them replaying one of my less stellar moments from seventh grade. I would not react. I would not react. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me . . .
“Can you believe it?”
I looked up. Cheyanne had her sleek black hair up in Princess Leia buns, and was sporting black lipstick to match. She was wearing the jacket she’d told me about when she texted from her San Francisco grandparents’ house over the summer—midriff short and made out of fuzzy rainbow-hued pom-pom balls. Underneath she wore a black catsuit and high-topped black Converse. She fit this school about as well as I did, the one main difference being that she was both extremely smart and musically gifted and her killer glare meant that no one ever messed with her. It was exceedingly lucky for me that she’d moved here in seventh grade, even if it was exceedingly unlucky for her to have to come from California to the suburban South. But at least the word queer didn’t freak her out. Everybody needs at least one friend and, though she had more than
just me, being a band kid and all, at least I had her.
“Believe what?” I watched upperclassmen flow through the halls, keeping an eye out for the couple of other gay kids I peripherally knew.
“Remember how I said I needed to get into honors English because Mom was pissed they put me in the regular one?”
“They transferred me. It changed my schedule all around and now I’m not in your math class anymore.”
This was critical news. This meant I had to go through every day of this semester with a perfect nobody to hang out with.
“It’s worse,” Cheyanne said.
“My lunch is switched, too. And I have to get to the orchestra room anyway. Did I tell you? I ditched the violin and am playing the string bass, so Mr. Lunesto wants me to come in for extra practice. Which is stupid because I can play circles around anybody at this school.”
Cheyanne’s modesty was not one of her strong points.
“Are your parents pissed?” Music was something all the Chen kids were started on early and I’d always gotten the sense Chey’s parents considered the violin the most superior of instruments, and therefore the one they required their kids to play. Which of course infuriated Cheyanne because as she put it, “What’s more stereotypical than me playing the violin?” It made sense she’d want to rebel. But she’d never quit playing altogether; music flowed through her veins.
“Yeah, they’re furious. Best decision I ever made. Now I’ve got to run. I’ll text you after school.” Cheyanne waved goodbye and bounced off down the hallway. Kids parted when they saw her coming. The girl was fierce, even if she did just totally screw me with her schedule change.
In math class, uncertainty followed me through the door. Cheyanne would have been third row back, center, so by default I would have been third row, off center. Today though, I had to make seating decisions that could potentially haunt me for the rest of the semester. I chose the comfort of the back corner and a wall. To kill the time until the bell, I started doodling a bird on the corner of my notebook.
It turned out I liked doodling, and spending my summer lost in the instruction book Samantha had given me saved me from a load of boredom. I’d expanded beyond the small square format of the Zentangles into full-page drawings and had managed to fill almost an entire sketchbook.
I was so lost in the therapeutic rhythm and the feel of my ultra-fine pens, that when something bounced against my desk, my hand skittered off the page.
“Crap.” A girl stood next to the empty seat in front of me. “I’m so sorry. Did I mess your drawing up? I’m such a klutz.”
Before I could answer, she leaned over to look at it.
“Huh? Turkey buzzard? You know, they’re related to storks. You’d never think it if you looked at the two side by side. Oh god. Stork rhymes with dork. Which I am. Because
there’s no way you wanted all that trivia. Sorry, I’m ridiculously into birds. It’s a sickness.”
I’d never seen her before and I definitely would have, dork or not. She had enormous brown eyes framed by thick lashes, a petite nose with a small gold ring in it, a perfectly
shaped mouth, and an under layer of purple streaks in her hair. She even had one of those dimples in her chin that some people diss on but I’d always thought were super sexy. She was curvy where I was angular, and Cheyanne-style cool in a vintage floral jumpsuit and worn-in purple Doc Martens.
I slid my hand over my drawing because even though I did enjoy it, it wasn’t something I shared with people.
“Um, it’s just a bird.”
The girl slung her tote bag over her chair and flashed a quick grin at me, before sliding into her seat and turning to face my desk. “There’s no such thing as just a bird.Once you get to know me, you’ll understand that.” She smiled then, perfect teeth except for a very charming gap that went exceptionally well with her chin dimple, and, dear God in the heavens, please let this teacher assign our seats today because suddenly getting to know her seemed like the thing that would remedy my entire life.
The math teacher did attendance, then announced to the room, “Okay, people, we’re going to do partner work today. Turn to the seat behind you and introduce yourself,
then memorize where you are because this is your spot until I say otherwise.”
Hello, answered prayer.
The girl turned around again, her bangs slightly obscuring her eyes as she moved, and held out her hand. “I’m Vivi.”
Vivi. It sounded like poetry. Vivi and Jess. It sounded strong.
“Um?” She cocked her head.
Right. What even? Smooth move, Jess. Speak. Get your words out. Shake her hand. “Uh. Yeah. I’m, um. I’m Jess.”
The girl, Vivi, stared. And I felt something wriggle in my gut.
Oh shit, this is it, she’s going to ask for a different partner because of how I look or because I sound like an imbecile. But she didn’t. She smiled and nodded and said, “Cool. Nice to meet you.”
I kept staring, my eyes locked on Vivi’s lips and that cute chin dimple, and my mouth must have been hanging open or something because she cracked up laughing, then turned around to get her math book before turning back with an “I like to get As. Hope you don’t have a problem with that.”
Nope. No problems here. Sophomore year was looking up already.
NOW: One Week, One Day After
I take my earbuds out when I get off the bus. Jay-Z’s chorus hangs in my ears. I got ninety-nine problems but a bitch ain’t one.
I’d take ninety-nine million problems to have Vivi back. Of all the macabre songs to land in my shuffle. If it wasn’t so tragic, I’d laugh.
The house is empty. Mom’s still at work. Nina probably is, too. The thunder of quiet is deafening.
“Emma Watson,” I call. A faded mew answers me from the back of the house. I follow the sound to my room where my cat looks at me from my drawing table. “You think I can have that space?” I point to the bed in a futile attempt to get her to act like a dog and move on command.
She flicks her tail.
“Fine.” I dump my stuff onto the floor and scoop her up in my arms. I think briefly about food, but just as fast the thought goes away replaced by a churn made of heartache. Worst diet ever. I hold the cat as long as she will let me, which isn’t long enough. When she wriggles free, I turn to the now empty drawing table.
My inks are lined up near the window and I go through the motions, opening colors and carefully placing the caps in the little plastic containers I recycle from the kitchen. I pull out a fresh sheet of Bristol paper and tape it in place at the corners. I insert a clean nib into the end of the plastic pen carriage. Then I sit. Staring at white paper. At nothingness. At snow. I try to dip the pen in ink, but my hand is indecisive.
When nothing comes but pain, I pick up the bottle of black ink and spill a puddle onto the page. I pull the domed circle out from itself with the plastic end of the penholder making a spider, or cracks, but definitely not art. When the penholder doesn’t satisfy me, I switch to my fingers, knowing they will stay stained black for days. When that no longer satisfies me, I hold the pricey paper up and tear it into strips. Then I tear those strips into strips. And those strips into squares. Then tinier squares until all I have left
is a pile of black stained paper covering my desk. I drop my head into my hands not even caring that my face will end up stained, too.
Art is stupid.
My phone buzzes. Cheyanne wants to FaceTime.
“Heard you beat up some backroads boy.” Cheyanne’s still rocking the fall look she had on at school today. Black tights, short red plaid shorts, massive black sweater, and a wide round-brimmed black felt hat that only she can get away with wearing in the hall without comment from teachers. The resting bitch face is powerful.
“Make you feel better?”
“Like I could do it again.”
Cheyanne knew angry Jess, but that Jess has been long dormant. Samantha taught me ways to manage, then the miracle of Vivi happened. Vivi soothed the remaining beast, showed me how to channel my rage into real art instead of doodles. But now? My fingers are firebrand hot. My soul pours out the reminder that art is inextricably linked to emotion and emotion leads to pain. Death can kill more than the person who died. It kills the future you thought you knew. It kills the dreams you were brave enough to have and gilds your stupidity for ever having them in the first place. I actually growl in response to my thoughts.
“Uh. Settle down, tiger. Want to go out tonight? It’s teen night at Doolittle’s. Levi can get you some vodka. What’s all over your face?”
“Ink,” I say. Get wasted, dance till I can’t move, these are definite things to contemplate, but being around happy people doesn’t sound appealing. I offer an alternative.
“How about the tracks?”
Cheyanne cocks her head, then shrugs. “Sure, why not. Meet us? After dinner, around seven.”
I nod. Levi remains Cheyanne’s lapdog. Though I sometimes feel kind of bad for his unrequited crush, I figure it’s probably pretty annoying for Chey to be the object of his never-ending pursuit, no matter how subtle. But overall, he’s pretty cool as far as dudes go and we both like having him around. At the last second, Cheyanne flashes an uncharacteristic smile and lifts heart hands to her chest.
My instinct is to reply with an I love you, too, but the river pushes up a wave and instead I give her a thumbs-up and shut down my phone.
THEN : A Small Sparrow
I made heart hands to myself. Which was stupid considering I was hidden in the bathroom stall before math class. But I needed a pep talk from somebody. Four weeks of class. Four weeks I’d been an utter dolt and completely nonverbal around Vivi other than a series of blushing grunts and groans.
Today, though, was different. I’d decided to invite Vivi to hang out with me and Cheyanne at the tracks and Stan’s Diner on Friday night. It wouldn’t be a date because Cheyanne would be there, but maybe I could feel Vivi out a little bit more. By now, she’d have figured out I was into girls, if not by the way I looked, by the school rumor mill.
She didn’t seem fazed by having me as her partner. She didn’t act nervous or put off around me like some girls did. And when I’d stalked her social media accounts, it seemed like she had a diverse group of friends and wasn’t someone who’d get stressed out by a girl having a crush on her, even if it wasn’t reciprocal.
As our teacher wound down his speech about finite and infinite sequences and assigned too much homework, I worked up my nerve. My hand lifted to reach forward and tap her shoulder, and I was almost there, my finger about to press against her skin when she pivoted around.
I sat back so hard my chair jumped against the floor.
Her eyes widened. “Am I that frightening?”
“No, I was . . .” I lost my nerve.
She reached into her Audubon society tote bag and pulled out a bright Tupperware brimming with some kind of casserole. “My mom sent me to school with this. No way
I can eat all of it and it’s way too good to waste. Want to join me for lunch?”
My tongue completely seized up and grew so large it wouldn’t fit in my mouth, so I nodded and mumbled.
I’d noticed that she usually ate outside, and often alone,
but sometimes sat inside with the kids from the International Club when they had their lunchtime meetings. I’d tried to get brave enough to go and sit with her, but my Samantha training usually had me racing away from the chaos of the high school cafeteria to the library with my sketchbook, pens, and pack of cheese crackers.
When the bell rang, she smiled and motioned for me to follow her. I did.
In the cafeteria, she motioned for me to wait by the drink machine. I did. But I also acted like a total creeper, watching her walk across the room, paying way too much attention to how her hips swelled out before sliding back in to round thighs and well-muscled calves. My chest cavity threatened to rip open. I couldn’t remember any other crush feeling quite like this.
She plucked two forks from the end of the lunch line and when she got back to me, she stuck them—tines up— in my front pocket, then she grabbed my hand and hauled me to an empty picnic table by the big oak tree outside the cafeteria doors.
She grabbed my hand.
At the table she let go, then plopped down, opened the lid, and reached for the forks in my pocket. Then she patted the bench for me like I was a toddler. “Sit.”
“Food in our house is a very big deal. My mom is a Cordon Bleu trained chef.” She handed me my fork and pushed the container toward me. I lifted a bite and tasted rich layers of potatoes and cream and zucchini.
I managed a guttural groan of goodness.
“She met my dad in France, he’s French you know.”
Bites of casserole served as a reason for my muteness. But then, somehow, in the way of small miracles, or maybe it was just my heart beating against my vocal cords, I managed
a couple of intelligible words. “Do you speak French? I’m horrible at foreign languages.” What I don’t mention is that my dad was half Mexican and fully fluent in Spanish. I could have been better if I’d tried. Or if I’d had more time with him.
“Oui, mademoiselle, je parle français.”
And . . . words gone. This totally cute girl, who’d pulled me, BY THE HAND, to this table and fed me creamy potato goodness, just spoke to me IN French. Hot did not even begin to describe it.
Vivi paused, laughter in her eyes, then leaned closer with a whisper not whisper. “You’re really cute when you’re nervous, you know.”
This was ridiculous. It was time to pull it together.
“I’m not nervous,” I squeaked out, my mind circling around the words, you’re really cute.
She laughed so hard she spit out some of her casserole. “Right,” she said once she quit laughing. “Why are you nervous, by the way?”
She was toying with me and I knew it, but I couldn’t tell if she was flirting or messing with me. I looked around. Maybe someone was filming this and it was all a colossal
joke to be made viral before the bell rang. Sort of a let’s see how nervous we can make the queer girl or, remember how Jess Perez used to be in middle school? Maybe we can
do something to make her break her focus. But, we were all alone.
This was it. My moment to branch out. Because even if she wasn’t into girls, it would be nice to expand beyond Cheyanne, especially since I never saw her anymore.
“Have you ever been to Stan’s?” I looked into Vivi’s eyes, then looked away. It had been a year and two really bad attempts at crush confessions since I’d felt this conflicted over a girl.
“You’re avoiding my question, but okay. Who’s he?”
This made me laugh. “Not a he. A place. Stan’s Diner. Pretty much everyone from Grady hangs out there on the weekends after games and stuff.” Which I guess was true, but I only went there because it was right behind my house and usually only after school for shakes or on Sundays for breakfast with Mom, but that’s what Nina had told me anyway.
“Oh. No, I haven’t. We just moved here over the summer from Raleigh.”
That explained why Cheyanne hadn’t known who I was talking about when I’d mentioned this cool girl named Vivi who was also into vintage style.
“Do you want to go?”
Vivi threw a piece of potato to a small sparrow pecking around in the dirt near the base of the tree. “Where? Back to Raleigh?”
Ugh. She was not making this easy.
“No, to Stan’s.”
“Oh.” She watched the bird peck at her offering. “I mean, I guess, one day. If that’s what people do.”
The term headdesk came to mind.
Then she glanced up at me and I saw the trickster in her expression.
“Ugh.” I said it out loud this time and brought my
palm to my forehead.
“Are you asking me on a date?” Vivi drew the sentence out, adding a singsong lilt to her voice.
This was a live or die kind of moment. Would she kill me with rejection or would this be the moment I’d been dreaming of?
She giggled and spared me from answering. “I mean, I kind of got the feeling that maybe you wanted to, and if you did, I would probably say yes.”
I sat up a little straighter. “Probably?”
“You have to try first.”
I looked around again for the hidden cameras but there was nothing and Vivi sat there, a grin playing on her lips and her eyes waiting. I ran my hand through the long part of my hair and worked up the nerve to spit it out. Finally, I went for it.
“I was wondering, do you want to come hang out with me and my best friend, Cheyanne, who you should really meet, and then, you and me we can go to Stan’s and get like milkshakes, or burgers, or whatever you want, and it’d be extra cool if it was a date but it’s okay if you don’t want it to be either because you know, I get it that you might not be into girls or whatever and I don’t want to freak you out,
you’re just a really good math partner and I like hanging out with you and—”
She cut me off. “Yes.”
“Yes, I’ll go with you to meet your friend and to get a milkshake. And yes I like girls. And yes . . .” She finally seemed as flustered as me judging by the way she shifted her hands under her legs, then back out, then back under again. “It can be a date.”
I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face for the rest of the day.
NOW: One Week, One Day After
It wasn’t so long ago that the prospect of hanging out with my friends would have been the highlight of my day. But now . . . life feels pointless. I pull on layers anyway, a T-shirt, a flannel, a hoodie. It may only be early October but there’s a chill in the night air. Unusual for the Piedmont at this time of year. In my pocket, I stuff my phone, a ten-dollar bill, and my dad’s old Case pocketknife.
“I’m going out, Mom.”
“Should I worry, Jess?” She stands and walks to me, then runs both hands back from my forehead to the crown of my head. “Your hair’s getting kind of long on top. Bieberish. I like it.” Then she rubs the buzz cut sides. “And I like these, too.”
“So does . . .” I trail off, the unspoken Vivi hanging on my breath. It doesn’t feel right to say did, the past tense, as if she’s gone, but she is, isn’t she? I move out from under my mother’s hand. “I’m meeting Cheyanne and Levi. At the tracks.”
“Not too late. It’s a school night. And please, be careful. If you’re not home by curfew I’m sending Nina after you.”
I grimace. My mother knows the fastest way to annoy me. A quick hug and I’m out the door. Outside the night is cool, the sky lit up by the strip mall that backs up to our street full of tiny brick ranch houses, mostly rentals like ours. I shove my hands into my hoodie’s pocket and walk down the sidewalk, glancing occasionally into brightly lit
windows to see televisions flickering and families living. At the end of the three-block street, Cheyanne’s car is waiting. She sees me and cuts the engine, unlocking her doors
and getting out. We clamber over the dead-end’s guardrail and walk a well-worn path through the woods. Freedom. Given how strict Cheyanne’s parents are, it’s something of
a minor miracle she manages to sneak out so frequently.
“Where are you tonight?”
“Practicing with the quartet.” Cheyanne slings an arm over my shoulder. “My parents are so proud of my civic involvement and my desire to further my musical aspirations.”
“How you never get caught at any of your shenanigans is beyond me.”
“They care, yet they don’t care. And I’m very careful and never do anything stupid like forget my phone or tell my brothers. Besides, my string quartet knows I’m in high school and sometimes I have to call and bail for extra study time. They’re very understanding.”
“Is that what we’re doing tonight? Studying?”
Cheyanne fishes in the pocket of her long tweed coat that makes it look like she walked through the door of some British country manor, and pulls out a bottle of vanilla vodka.
“Whoa, Chen. That’s unlike you.”
“Having my friend, but more importantly, your girlfriend, up and die from the flu, before flu season, calls for extreme measures.”
“It was her asthma. Complicated by a flu-like illness.”
For some reason, it’s important for me to say it out loud, that by verbalizing it, I’ll understand.
“Right. The result is sadly the same and requires numbing. Somebody gave this to my dad and it was buried in a liquor cabinet they rarely even open. Believe me, they won’t know it’s gone.” She untwists the cap and hands the bottle to me.
I tip it to my lips and let it scald on the way down. A cough follows. “That is nothing like a vanilla latte.”
“Would you prefer we go to Starbucks?” She gives me the classic head tilt and evil bitch stare.
“No. This’ll do. Numb might be nice.”
“That’s the way.” Cheyanne nods in approval. “Come on, let’s go dangle.”
We walk to the railroad bridge. The vodka soaks into my bones and a lovely numbing sets in. Cheyanne leads the way out onto the concrete ledge, just wide enough that the rare train will still set my heart racing even though I know I’m safe. Below us cars drive, their headlights bouncing off graffiti as we sit with our legs hanging in space.
“You brought her here that first day.”
“Yep.” Vodka gallops down my throat and I know tomorrow’s gonna hurt.
“I hated her then.” Cheyanne has said this before.
“You could have been my girlfriend. You had the option. I asked that one night in eighth grade.” Though it’s true I asked, it’s not true we would have successfully dated. Though Chey’s never labeled herself, my guess is she’s aromantic, maybe even asexual. She has no interest in anything other than friend outings and never talks about wanting to hook up with anyone. Take Levi for example. He’s been smitten with her since she sat her string bass down next to his but it’s been a solid no-go on the romantic front. I’m such a hopeless romantic it’s hard for me to understand, but then I guess it’s hard for some people to understand girls being attracted to girls.
Cheyanne blows out a huffy breath. It’s quickly followed by a whistle coming from the dark on the opposite side of the crossing.
“Your boyfriend’s here.” I nudge her in the side knowing I’m pushing her buttons and about to get a lecture. A figure emerges onto the tracks.
“How many times do I have to explain that I have no interest in having a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend.” I know I irritate her, but I like Levi. And I like Cheyanne. And it’s my natural tendency to play matchmaker even when I know I shouldn’t. Except . . . the blade of my grief presses in . . . I don’t want them to ever feel like I’m feeling now.
“Too many. Sorry for the disrespect.”
Cheyanne flicks my thigh to both scold and accept my apology.
Levi bypasses Cheyanne and comes to sit on the other side of me. I lean my head on his shoulder. “Thanks for coming out tonight.” I hand him the bottle.
He wraps both arms around me and side hugs before taking my offering. “This is some shit, huh.”
“Shit sure enough.” I pull out of his arms. “Can we go somewhere else? Tracks are making me sad. Too much Vivi.”
“Like where?” Cheyanne takes the bottle from Levi after he swigs, but only to put the cap back on. Part of her never getting caught where she’s not supposed to be, is never drinking and driving.
I bounce on the balls of my feet. “Somewhere dark that doesn’t check IDs, or, I don’t know, let’s just walk. Get more booze. Break stuff.”
The overpass takes on the slightest vibration.
“Train,” Levi says. “Let’s go before it gets here. I’ve got the place.” He leads in the direction he came from and we follow, hands out to our sides like we’re balancing on
a tightrope. We’re an unlikely crew, the dyke, the fierce California girl, and the Southern gentleman, but for some reason it works. We follow each other in a line and slide down the wooded slope and step through the busted chain-link fence on the west side of the overpass.
“More vodka for the grieving one,” Cheyanne says.
Levi nods. “That would be all of us then.” He motions for us to cut through behind a Laundromat and down an alley between a tropical fish store and a used furniture place. We skirt over a block and stop outside of a gas station liquor store where Levi gives a homeless guy in the shadows money for two fifths.
“One for us. One for you,” he says.
“You got it, boss.” The homeless guy is back out in a flash and hands over one of two paper bags in the shadows next to the building. “Appreciate it, boss.”
Levi gives him another five dollars. “Get some food, too.”
He’s always been a good guy that way.
I think briefly about my mom and how she’d maybe have the tiniest bit of freak-out if she knew we were over here, threading into the sketchier neighborhoods, on a ten-cent
school night bender. But the vodka is killing the pain and the motion is keeping me in the now and that’s good enough to forget the rest.
“Here.” Levi slips behind a dilapidated wooden fence. Junked cars stretch out for several lots. The only sound is traffic. He picks up a rock and hands it to me.
“Won’t someone hear us?” Cheyanne asks.
“Folks around here don’t budge for gunshots. A little broken glass won’t matter.”
The weight of rock in my hand is soothing—something about the press of metamorphic layers—and I wonder if I have the strength to crush them. The rage of loss and the fury of alcohol build inside of me and before either Levi or Cheyanne are ready for it, I let the rock sail straight into the back window of a battered minivan. A dog barks somewhere in the night.
I pick up another rock from the ground and throw.
I hold out my hand and Levi hands me another. I throw and throw and throw. Minutes, an hour, time stands still as I lose myself in the crash of hard rock against brittle glass. I only stop when the minivan’s rear window is totally shattered.
My arms drop as I stare at the loss of reflection. “I’m hungry now.”
Cheyanne holds out the bottle and I shake my head. The breaking glass cleared my mind and I want to keep it that way for a moment.
Without consultation, we turn and head back the way we came. We recross the tracks and head for the bright lights of Stan’s Diner.