I Don’t Belong Here

In the car, with my dad. He’s driving. Not the best time to come out of the closet.

*

When my friends’ parents ask after my parents, they never know who they should ask about first. They can’t say, “How are your parents?” anymore, so they pick one and hope it’s the right one.

*

My parents used to call each other “cutie.” Both stopped.

*

I’m in the car with my mom, and I’m driving. My arms steer and my feet work the pedals, although her brain and mouth are trying their best to get behind the wheel.

She says, “You don’t seem as sure of yourself as your sister did. Maybe you should wait a few more months.”

I say, “I’m sixteen. Everyone else has their license already.”

“It’s not a race.”

Except that it is.

*

 

When your sister’s perfect, you’re fucked. So you have to be something else.

*

My aunt Bev, my dad’s sister, calls me almost every week now.

“I spoke to your dad today. He informed me that mrskin.com has video clips now. He needs a hobby.”

*

When the phone rings, my mom almost always gets to it first, especially if she’s seeing someone. She either leaves these phone calls giggling, or clenching her jaw. If it’s the second, she turns around to call her best friend and describe her outrage. She’ll say, “I was just brushing my teeth,” or, “I was just vacuuming,” or, “I was just standing here, you know, doing my makeup, and he called and said this unbelievable shit to me.”

She always wants the person on the other line to know that she was in the middle of doing some mundane task before the caller said the unbelievable shit.

*

My sister, Erica, once caught me making out with Kara, the co-captain of the basketball team.

I said, “If you tell Mom and Dad, I’ll tell them about the time you blew that guy in the marching band.”

“I didn’t blow him. He finger-fucked me. At least he’s a junior.”

*

When Erica and I were little, I stepped in a hornet’s nest and nearly got us both stung. We both ran away screaming, and later told our parents about it.

“She almost killed us both,” Erica, who knew how to cry on cue, said. “There were a million hornets there.”

“There weren’t a million hornets,” my mom said.

“Maybe there were,” my dad said. “You never know.”

*

 

When my mom brought home our dog, a “Christmas surprise” from the shelter, my dad was furious.

“This is your mother,” he says. “She’ll say, ‘Maybe a Jack Russell terrier,’ and brings home a goddamned Rottweiler.”

*

Erica likes to turn on “Creep” by Radiohead. She’ll turn a chair around like a burlesque dancer and straddle the seat, toss all of her long hair in her face and moan, “So fuckin’ special,” through the mane in front of her.

This is one of many reasons why I don’t get why people think she’s so perfect.

*

Once, when my dad and I returned from a trip to the movies, my mom accosted him as soon as he had settled into his chair. Forgetting (or choosing to ignore) that I was sitting there, Mom blurted out that she caught Erica’s boyfriend going down on her in my parents’ bed. Dad didn’t look up from his newspaper.

“Yeah, well,” he said.

“You don’t think this is a problem?”

“Remind me to wash the sheets later.”

*

Mom always wore her hair short, with coiffed styles that required an update every six to eight weeks and tons of hairspray to keep up. When she let me touch her hair, usually at the end of the day, I told her I liked its crunchy texture. She grimaced when I said that, and I wondered why she spent so much time and effort if she didn’t want praise.

*

I used to read Erica’s diary. She caught me one day and hit me, and before long we were throwing everything we collectively owned at one another. My mom came in and told us both to apologize, and I was to go first since I’d started it all.

“Sorry,” I screamed.

“That’s a nasty sorry,” my mom said.

“Sorry,” Erica said, not screamed. My mom instructed me to follow suit, and after I made her spend several minutes explaining what that meant, I “followed suit” even though I did not understand.

In her diary, Erica had written, “Creepy little cunt,”’ about me.

*

When I was about seven, I overheard my mom describe someone as “bloodthirsty” over the phone. I had just watched a vampire movie I’d found in a trunk in the basement, and the word chilled me.

I’d forgotten about this episode until last week when I saw an Ann Rice novel on my mom’s coffee table. I reminded her of the overheard conversation and tried to identify the approximate year the conversation would have taken place. She stared at me for a moment before she said she would never refer to a person this way, even if she were joking.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “Not even Dad?”

She thought for a moment, then said, “Not then.”

Maybe I was nine.

*

My parents always left each other handwritten reminders, even after everyone else in the world started texting each other. My mom would write, “Dinner in frig” in her rounded script, while my dad might write, “Inconsistent use of denominators.”

Today, my dad has written, “Wake me sometime soon.”

*

Erica starts school in four weeks. My parents have been fighting for weeks over who’s obligated to pay for her psychology and English books, so Aunt Bev has volunteered to buy them.

“That’s just fine,” Mom says, and I know she is secretly pleased.

*

“Do you think we should start going to the GSA meetings together?” I ask Kara. We are lying next to each other by the pond behind her parents’ house, and our interlaced fingers rest on the moist grass.

“Why would we do that?” Kara sits up and brushes an ant off her knee.

“It seems like something we should do.”

“We need people to tell us how to be gay?”

Maybe we do.

*

Erica is packing up the car to move into her new dorm four miles across town, and I have been recruited to help my parents.

“She could just live with one of us, you know,” my dad says.

“With who?” my mom says.

“With you,” my dad says.

I carry the box labeled “sweaters” and wedge it between Erica’s guitar and laundry basket.

Erica says, “With whom.”

*

Four hours later, Erica calls me from her new dorm. A deep bass line thumps in the background.

“I don’t know if I like it here,” she says.

“What the hell am I doing here,” I say.

“I don’t belong here,” she says, and hangs up.

*

Aunt Bev supervises as I drive to Kara’s house. I tell Aunt Bev that Kara knows I’m coming, even though she doesn’t.

I knock on Kara’s front door. A floorboard creaks from within, but no one answers.

“She forgot,” I say to Bev.

*

My mom asks me what my dad wants for Christmas.

“I know you don’t have money,” she says.

“He says he needs socks,” I say. I have no idea if this is true. Mom snorts.

“I am not buying anything that touches his sweat,” she says. We go shopping at Wal-Mart, and buy him a snow globe.

When my mom is not looking, I slip a pair of purple women’s socks into my purse for Erica.

Go, Fight, Win

Staci jumps the highest, and Kayleigh comes up with the best new cheers. Ashley and Carrie can both do a back tuck. Morgan and Rachel are the smallest, so they can fly. Danielle is the prettiest. Jenna learns routines the fastest. Lauren, my favorite, is the smartest.

I’m the newest.

*

Jenna’s mom is driving me home from cheer practice, just like she does every Tuesday. She drives a Lincoln Navigator and doesn’t work. She’s everyone’s favorite mom because she lets us listen to rap music, even the kind with the parental warning label on it. Sometimes she raps along with the choruses.

Ashley’s mom will take me home on Thursday. She drives a Taurus and listens to Van Halen. Even if Mom had time to participate in the cheerleading carpool, we know her 1992 Oldsmobile does not belong.

Of course, this is all really Dad’s fault. If he hadn’t run off to Indiana to live with some skank named Brynda, Mom wouldn’t be working two jobs just to make rent on a duplex in Lancaster. I don’t mention all these things to the girls or their moms because you can only hear, “Oh, sweetie,” so many times. I just say my dad is gone, and that’s apparently enough.

*

Later, my phone rings. I recognize the Indiana area code and hit ‘ignore.’

Ten minutes afterward, I check my screen for the voicemail alert I know isn’t there.

*

I used to dance. I took tap, jazz, lyrical, and ballet classes. Even if she had the time to take me to a studio that’s now forty minutes away, Mom would not be able to afford the classes. I was just about to start on pointe shoes and master the fouetté.

My new high school didn’t have a dance team, so I signed up for the cheerleading squad a month before tryouts.

I met Lauren, my first and best cheer friend, at the first pre-tryout clinic. She had come out of real dance too. We found the motions strange and robotic, arms and legs flicking from position to position as if they were trying to be a series of still poses with no movement in between. Even jazz isolations had some fluidity.

Lauren’s mom drove us back to her house afterwards and we went over the motion drills and jumps in her basement.

High V, low v. T, broken T.

“Do you need to call home?” Lauren’s mom asked after we’d been practicing an hour.

Daggers, candlesticks, buckets.

“No,” I said. Mom had just started her second job and wouldn’t be home for at least three hours.

Right fight, left fight.

“Are you sure? I’d feel better if you gave her a call.”

Herkie, toe touch, hitch kick.

I called Mom and left a voicemail.

*

Mom has this new boyfriend, Randall. I haven’t met him. Tonight is Mom’s night off and she’s going on her third date with him.

When the doorbell rings, Mom is still in the bathroom. I can hear the shower running as I go to answer.

When I open the door, a small guy with dark eyes stares back at me and jams his hands into his pockets. His face looks like it has just dropped from a smile. He obviously didn’t expect to meet me, and I wonder if he even knew I existed at all.

“Um. Is Amy here?” he says.

When Mom first told me she was dating again, I pictured slightly more polished versions of the football or cheer dads. Clean-cut, husky and balding, but with kind faces. Randall has a beard and wears a worn blue button-up tucked into his jeans.

I’ve rehearsed meeting Mom’s boyfriend, imagining myself witty and charming and having him think I’m so grown up and not at all like a 15-year-old. But whatever I planned has fallen away, and all I manage is, “Hi,” and, “She’s still getting ready.”

Because the night is chilly and because we share a porch with neighbors now, and because Mom will take at least another twenty minutes, I invite Randall in.

Randall sits on the edge of the cushion, hands clasped together with his elbows resting on his knees. He looks around the living room, but there isn’t much to see besides the TV, a computer desk, and a few childhood pictures of me.

“Nice place,” he says. I know it’s not and he does too, but I thank him. For all I know, his place is worse and anyway, what is he supposed to say?

I say, “I’ll check on my mom,” wondering if “my mom” sounds as funny in his head as “my mom’s boyfriend” does in mine.

I hover outside the bathroom door. The water has stopped running, and I can now hear the sound of Mom applying her makeup, cases and bottles clicking against the vanity.

“He’s here,” I say, hoping Randall can’t hear me from his perch.

“He is?”

“Living room.”

Mom cracks the door and sticks her head out. Her coppery hair is still wet and she has only gotten as far as her eyeliner, which makes her already small eyes look even smaller, though they are open about as wide as they will go.

“Tell him I’ll be a few minutes,” she says.

When I repeat this to Randall, he nods, his expression neutral.

Dad always complained about Mom’s chronic lateness. “Be careful who you end up with,” he said to me once. “You might spend your whole life waiting.”

*

Twenty-seven minutes after Mom said she’d be back from her date, my phone rings. I don’t look this time.

Spend your whole life waiting.

*

There are things that no one tells you.

JV games are unnervingly quiet. Also, cheerleaders aren’t always popular. Also, football players don’t care about the locker decorations you make. Or you.

I thought I knew some of these things before, but it’s different when you see them being true.

*

At least I can yell.

When I call cheers, the entire crowd looks up. Even the moms who are huddled in clusters gossiping. Even the football dads.

Even, sometimes, the players.

*

The second time Randall arrives for a date with Mom when I’m home, he holds his tight smile when I come to the door. He’s apparently prepared for me to answer this time.

Mom is farther along getting ready than she was for their last date, so I feel more relaxed when I lead Randall into the living room. We sit, and Randall asks me how I like school. I tell him I like it just fine. He’s probably not looking for a real answer anyway.

After a pause he asks, “How’s cheerleading?”

“It’s pretty fun.” At today’s “pretty fun” practice, Therese made us hold different motions in place for almost an hour, weaving through the rows and pushing against our arms to make sure we held them tightly enough.

“I used to play football,” Randall says. I try to picture him in uniform, small and scrawny and twenty years younger.

“Do you miss it?” I ask.

“Sometimes.” Randall stares straight ahead, his softening face betraying the word. I wonder if these really are the best years.

The bathroom door opens, and I hear Mom pad toward her room.

“I’m sorry you have to wait,” I say, as though it’s my job to apologize on behalf of my mom.

“It’s all right,” Randall says. I believe him.

*

Mike Ivanic, #7 almost loses the ball to St. Francis, and Coach Wilson calls a timeout. I strain to listen even though I’m just far enough away that I can never hear what they’re saying.

This is the best time to call a cheer, when we have the ball and nothing is happening on the field. In my peripheral vision I can see Rachel turn, so I turn with her, ready to join into whichever chant she calls.

Except that she shrills, “Sack that quarterback and crash through that line!” as loudly as her tiny voice will allow. Shit. Briana and Kayleigh glance at each other, unsure if we should continue with this defense chant, but no one on Rachel’s side appears to notice the error and they all join before the end of the first round.

I try to drown them out with, “Go, fight, win,” but even my volume cannot outdo the others once they have joined Rachel, so I relent and finish. I can feel myself scowling during the whole chant.

After we turn around to face the field again, Dominic Hughes #83 turns to us and sneers.

“Nice going, ladies,” he says, like it’s a dirty word.

I can hear the football dads laugh, the ones who go to the back of the bleachers and stand in a row. Fucking dumbass Rachel.

At least my dad taught me football.

*

On the bus ride home from the St. Francis game, my phone rings. I hit ‘answer’ and hold the speaker to my ear. There is a faint exhale on the other line and I disconnect the call with a shaky hand.

I’d planned this time to say, “eat shit,” or “fuck off, Patrick,” or any number of other things that he can’t ground me for from two hundred miles away, but we lost to St. Francis and the bus is silent because the players aren’t allowed to talk when they lose. And when the players aren’t allowed to talk, we aren’t either. In my head, I blame them.