Fiction Issue 2013: "State Hospital" 

"I’ve been making up answers to people's questions about my future. I’ve been showing my breasts to strangers on the Internet."

In sophomore year religion class, I stare at the pair of feet under the desk next to mine. They're like canoes, covered in blue plaid Chuck Taylors with taut laces. They belong to a Taiwanese exchange student. Sometimes I use my peripheral vision to peek at his doodles, but they're the same every day: headshots of women with hair shaped like lightning.

I wear shoes without laces. I walk on this side of the street and bicker with Hillary, when I wanna be on that side, holding the bicep of that pre-dent kid with mirrors for teeth. I've been making up answers to people's questions about my future. I've been showing my breasts to strangers on the Internet.

We broke up Easter Monday, Hillary and me. Nobody was surprised. My sheets had been dry since Thanksgiving. She didn't cry till she saw me kiss someone else in the corner booth at Routine's the following Wednesday. We had talked it over so many times that our conversations had begun to sound like bird feed and scratched mannequin fingers and ceiling cobwebs—just circles of nothing—but that kiss was almost in the right language.

She wasn't mad I kissed her friend, or that I did it in front of her. She was mad her friend was a boy. She used to shake me awake in the middle of the night to narrate a fresh nightmare where I'd kissed someone named Michael or Tom or Raymond.

"That won't ever happen," I'd say, jaw tight.

"Claire," she'd say, her pulse tapping through her neck. "It scares me."

Hillary's roommate, Meghan, was from Crystal Lake. She always woke up grumpy, bangs vertical, fumbling her shower caddy, complaining to girls down the hall that we'd kept her up. She had a foot tattoo. We were lying on the floor of their dorm room the day she got it. We were together then. We were ordering Thai takeout in the shitty fleece bathrobes we won at a spelling bee during orientation week at DePaul.

"Alethia," Meghan said, peeling the tape from her skin. "It means truth."

I wouldn't make eye contact with Hillary, but she wanted me to. She wanted to laugh.

"In what language?" I asked.

My brother Alex saw a ghost on our grandpa's makeshift tours of Printers Row the last summer he and I still shared a bath. He tells the story whenever he drinks High Life with strangers, which isn't often now that he's proposed to Jade. She's a recovered alcoholic and her definition of fun's changed over the years, I guess. My parents like her.

Alex will sometimes take me to Oberweis on the 12th of the month because our birthdays are both on the 12th. This is how he knows I'm never undecided. I order without a menu every time: anything but butterscotch.

"You're good, Claire," he said once, patting my shoulder blade. "You're quick."

Our Oberweis dates continued long past our last bath time, past when my mother noticed the black, wiry hairs poking through my pores. As we got older, we found ways to unravel the stitches that had kept us close: he stole the booklets of my Britney CDs and stowed them away in his desk. I'd redirect his friend's eyes from the PlayStation to my riverboat-wide hips when I walked through the living room to answer the phone for some nonconversation with a boy. By the time I started high school, I was five-foot-ten and friendless, save for Marianne. I was used to hearing Alex let girls—usually the same girl: Callie Butcher and her guffaw—into his bedroom window when he was home from Brown for breaks. Since then, we've found new ways to talk. They're not as thorough as they were when our dad was scrubbing our scalps and singing Ella Fitzgerald. I'm gonna wash that sand right outta my hair.

My grandpa played that song on one of our drives to the airport. It was the first time I heard the real lyrics. It'd be a few years till I understood.

I'm sliding my left foot into a turquoise cowboy boot by the checkout lines at Goodwill, clutching Ryan's shoulder for stability, when he says I'm perfect. The pair is half a size too small. I don't know what makes him say it. I scrunch the skin of my forehead into a mountain range and wiggle my ankle, pretending to get pissed at the boot. Blood rushes to my ears, and my bangs—my goddamn bangs, which I've been trying to grow out for over a year, since the night I cut them while watching Roman Holiday, draining dry a $4 bottle of merlot after Ryan had gone to bed—keep slipping out of my bobby pins. His mouth moves but he makes no sound. He reminds me of a nervous understudy. I'm the frazzled director, throwing pencils. Learn your fucking lines, I wanna say, but it'd be like scratching a sunburn.

"You would've been named Ryan if you were a boy," my mom says when I tell her I'm bringing him to Alex's wedding.

His house is 30 minutes away from mine by bus. It's 15 minutes by car, but we're fresh out of college and don't own cars and even if we did, we'd only have orange juice to pour in the tank. He lives within walking distance of the Goodwill, and that's where we go on Saturdays when our heads hurt too much to read the books we pretend to like.

"It's dragging right now," he says. This particular Saturday, he's stalled in The Other Side of Paradise.

I like him fine without thought or effort—he's quick with directions and flips omelets like a professional—but these cowboy boot moments test my trust in him. I start to imagine cement crumbling around bricks. Every time he uses the word perfect, every time he answers his mom's phone calls when I'm lying in bed beside him, I pull a brick from the wall and stick a piece of paper in the gap. I know he won't read them.

"If you like losers," my friend Marianne tells me that night at dinner. She's forking mango slices out of her fish taco. She has never finished this sentence; it's our dialect's "when in Rome."

"But I'm bored," I say. I'm staring out the window, but I mean it.

"Because he treats you right?" she asks.

"No. That's not why."

"Then what?"

Marianne and I have known each other since knobby-jointed nuns taught us to read at Saint Margaret's. She's had the same boyfriend since sixth grade and commuted throughout college, kicking the covers off her childhood bed every night. I've never told her about Hillary. We never even talk about Elton John. I learned a long time ago how to landscape our conversations.

At the wedding reception, there's no bar. Alex had told us there wouldn't be, but I'd hoped the country club might set one up like a lemonade stand and call it a misunderstanding. All of us at the head table are drinking 7 Up through straws and Jade loves it, thinks we'll all pump truthful, tearful toasts into the microphone, which I think is naive for a former alcoholic.

Ryan's sitting with my cousins in the tux he insisted on buying. He looks handsome, like Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. Beyond that, they share no similarities. This is the most black I've ever seen him wear. He cried at the ceremony. He cried when we visited Alcatraz last summer, too.

When our dinner plates are cleared, I excuse myself for the ladies' room. Two girls are looking at themselves in the mirror. One's curling her eyelashes with a spoon. I'd guess they're 17. I'm certain they're Jade's relatives. They talk loudly while I hike up my dress in the stall.

"You guys say love?" one asks.

"He said it to me first."

"Wow."

"It's true."

"You love him?"

The girl takes a breath deep enough to inflate a dozen balloons and uses it all to say, "God, yeah."

"Why?"

"I don't know."

"You gotta have reasons."

"No, I don't, idiot."

The bathroom valet sneezes, and one girl blesses her. Everyone is quiet for a minute.

At work, I'm writing a piece on hospital-induced illnesses, women who go to the ER with ovarian cysts and catch E. coli on a handrail. I could've finished it Friday if I hadn't had to leave early for Jade's bachelorette dinner. Sometimes I talk to Ryan about my interviews and my research when I get home, but he doesn't buy the idea of germs finding us in the places we go to get better.

"I don't know," the girl says. "I love how much fun we have. Last night we stayed up till 6 AM trying to find the freshest pack of Juicy Fruit in Lombard."

"That's dumb."

"I love his impersonations."

"Whatever."

"He has a good laugh."

"We get it."

I hear the girl drop her spoon on the basin. "Let's go dance."

They open the door to reenter the party and I hear a few seconds of "Johnny B. Goode" before the door muffles the sound again. I'm washing my hands at the sink when the bathroom valet refills the silence.

"You hear those two?" she asks me.

I nod and smile at her in the mirror.

People keep wishing Alex and Jade longevity, and I picture dust bunnies in nursing home hallways. I think of leaving Ryan, and I imagine Route 29 buses outside my living room window, and me, hiding in my utility closet. I try to kiss him like a woman who loves him back, not a scalp he's nestling into. I try to tell the truth. I just have nothing to say. I see my secrets bloom like algae and I'm too afraid to stop them.

I wipe my hands dry with a towel, put on some more lipstick. I drop a dollar in the tip jar. When the DJ asks the bridal party to collect in the lobby for a photo, I go.

Click.

Click.

Flash.

I don't show my teeth.

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