Rating: PG for one mildly inappropriate word and a vague reference to drugs.
I sit at the breakfast table, staring into a bowl of oatmeal, and wait for my day to begin. My neat curls are pulled back so tightly on my head they're hurting me. I try to pretend like I am not as miserably exhausted as I feel. They say that if you make yourself smile, you will automatically start feeling better. As I contemplate my oatmeal in the quiet kitchen, I decide to test this theory. I spread my lips to reveal white, shining teeth and smile brightly at nothing. The muscles in my cheeks start to hurt. My oatmeal gets colder. I keep smiling, trying not to think of how stupid I must look.
"Day-dreaming about Fagney, are we?" my younger brother asks as he saunters into the room. I quickly hide the smile the way you stash an embarrassing secret, and look down, blushing. I glance over at Phillip, who is wearing the same clothes he wore yesterday. I am completely surprised that he has acknowledged my presence. I am even more surprised that I care enough to feel embarrassed.
I let the end of my spoon drop into the bowl and watch as the thick quicksand of oats sucks it under. I scoop up its contents only to pour then right back in. "If you're talking about Rodney, we broke up two months ago," I say with a level of disinterest, still staring at my breakfast. "Way to pay attention, Philly."
And interestingly enough, Philly isn't paying attention. He is intently focused on his search through the cupboard, quite uninterested in my response. But I don't care. This is the way it is between us. We speak to one another simply because we feel like speaking. We expect no response. We are two beings in different planes of existence.
I watch as he stands on his toes to peer onto the top shelf. His faded, too-short jeans rise even higher and reveal mismatched socks, one dark purple and one black with pink cat-faces. There is a hole in one of his red Converse shoes. A smiling pink kitty cat peeks out at me, and I suddenly feel very unsure of myself.
Phillip turns to me with a heavy sigh. "Did you eat the last strawberry Pop-Tart?" he asks forlornly, as if the absence of the Pop-Tarts has made his life no longer worth living.
I shake my head and look down at my oatmeal again. I bring the spoon to my lips but instead of taking a bite I just stare at it. Eating breakfast has begun to feel like everything else in my life, something I do simply because I have always done it. Maybe I don't even like oatmeal. The bulbous glob of food on my spoon stares back at me accusingly.
"Are you on drugs?" Phillip asks me in all seriousness. I glance at him and notice his incredulous and questioning stare. It's as though this is the first time he's seen me in months.
I roll my eyes. "As if."
He shrugs as though not entirely convinced and continues rummaging through the cupboard. I listen with a faint interest to the sounds of his movement as I stare out into nothingness. I try to prepare myself for the day that lies ahead. It's almost like I can watch it my head before it even happens. Friends telling jokes, asking favors. Teachers giving lessons, me vomiting them back up on paper. My counselor reminding me again and again that my college application is due this month. I hear these predictable voices in my head, echoing like screams in a tacky horror flick. My life is a bad movie.
The soft clunk of a bowl hitting the table distracts me from my disparaging thoughts. Phillip sits across from me, shoveling Lucky Charms into his mouth as he solves the puzzle on the back of the box. I watch his eyes as they peer through a curtain of sloppy brown hair and hurriedly skim over the bright red box. Looking closely, I can see a smudge of yellow paint in his hair. His fingers, too, are covered with patches of color. Thick layers of blues and reds and greens have built up around his cuticles and under his fingernails. It's on his skin, on his clothes, in his hair. Paint has become part of his being. I find it interesting that though I have long been aware of the ever-present residue of my brother's hobby, I can't seem to recall a single painting he has done. That's just like me. I see the details, the unimportant fluff of the world around me, and yet I fail to grasp the big picture. To try and see things from a broader perspective would take strength I just don't have.
He has noticed my gaze and now he is staring back with raised eyebrows. "No, really," he says, mouth still half-full of chalky milk and marshmallows. "Are you on anything? You didn't get it from Pokey, did you? Because that kid's crazy."
I exhale slowly and close my eyes. "If I was ever to stoop so low as buying drugs, trust me, I would not even think about going to your mentally- challenged, flea-ridden compadre," I tell him. My voice is surprisingly deadpan. It's too early in the morning to be witty.
"Well, then what's your deal? I'm sorry, wait. What do you kids say? Damage. What's your damage? You're acting like someone ran over your dog. And we don't have a dog."
I idly stir my oatmeal and marvel at the novelty of his question. He is asking me what's wrong. Through the smart-ass, insensitive, little- brother blabbering that I usually tune out completely, he is actually attempting to understand me in this moment. Part of me wants to open up and pour my emptiness out, share the burden with someone else for a change. But the other side of me, the side that is cynical and crafty and realistic, in other words, the side that everyone is used to seeing, makes me question why he even cares.
"Nothing." That's the reflex response, the one-word lie that makes a brilliant excuse for any occasion. I realize with amazement, though, that that could just as easily be the truth. I am nothing. I feel nothing. I think nothing. I am a machine. I follow the map I have been given and try as hard as I can not to think about the destination. I sigh. "It's just, you know. it's a Monday. The fit's about to hit the shan and all that."
He nods with an understanding I wasn't expecting. It is so rare we find common grounds to speak on. But then again, how often do we really even try? "Right. Weekly moment of zen." He opens his mouth and yawns loudly, and I see a red balloon stuck in his back teeth. "Got that application ready?"
My whole body stiffens and my eyes widen with fear. It is strange how from the moment he was old enough to speak, Phillip has had a talent for saying the exact thing that will make me feel miserable. "What's it to you?" I sigh and lower my chin to the table, hiding my face behind my untouched bowl of oatmeal. "God, is there no escape?"
Phillip laughs. "No, actually, there really isn't. Mrs. Stewart has actually started stalking me in the halls, bugging me about the fact that you haven't asked for your recommendation yet. As if I like, care, or have any idea what's going on, for that matter."
Now I know things must be getting desperate. Of all the people my counselor could use to get through to me, my younger brother would have to be the least likely candidate. She could have called my parents. She could have spoken to any one of my teachers, or maybe one of my friends. I wouldn't even have been surprised if she'd gone to Rodney. Anyone but Phillip. Phillip is last in line on my list of daily contacts.
"God. I wish they would all just leave me alone, you know? I mean, really. Do they think I'm just going to, like, NOT apply for college? Like I'm just going to blow it off or something. I mean, I'll do it. Have I ever not done something before? I've only been in high school for like four years now, I think I know how to fill out a form. God. Mrs. Stewart is such a control freak." I am babbling and I know it. I also know that Phillip could care less. I shove cold oatmeal into my mouth to shut myself up. It tastes like cinnamon-flavored mud.
I look away. I see the glittering morning sun pour through the curtains, creating a patch of light on the dim linoleum. There are birds squawking out of harmony on the other side of the glass. There's a whole big day of fake out there and I just don't think I can face it. I want to crawl back inside my blankets and sleep until I wake up nine years old again.
There was a time in my life when I was completely sure of who I was. I don't remember why this was, or what was so different about then and now. I only know that at some point everything was clear. Everything felt okay. A life of pom poms and shopping malls and Prom committee seemed completely natural. There was nothing to question. I was focused on all the right things, like friends and church and SAT scores. I mean, I must have been happy. There must have been a time when I didn't feel so alone.
But at some point along the way, my world became less vibrant. The things I once loved and enjoyed have suddenly become empty routines. Honors classes. Student council. Cheerleading. Friends. These things have become nothing more than landmarks, guiding me along this barren stretch of road. They tell me when to pause, when to make a left, when to put on a pretty smile. I have become so buried in my own world that I can't even bare to think about tomorrow. All I have is today. I simply focus on faking my way through one day at a time. What lies ahead for me is something I can't swallow.
I tap my spoon against the side of the bowl, impatient for something I don't even want to happen. I watch Phillip and he doesn't watch me back. I wait for him to say something, but he doesn't. He eats his cereal and is deeply involved with Lucky's Super Maze. I want him to look at me. I want him to say that he sees right through me, because I know he does. Speak, Phillip. Tell me what I'm doing wrong. But his only reply is the sound of Lucky Charms crunching between his teeth and the light squeaking of his shoes against the floor.
An obnoxious car horn outside honks three times. Phillip hurriedly inserts a few more loads of cereal into his mouth before standing up and tossing his dishes into the sink. He grabs his beaten, paint-covered backpack off the floor and slides it on. Just before he leaves the kitchen, he pauses suddenly and turns to me. He looks at me with a brow furled in uncertainty as he brushes his hair out of his face. His lips are pursed, on the edge of words that do not come.
"What?" I snap at last. I can't stand it. I don't know what he's going to say but I know that I need him to say it. I feel like whatever it is he has to say is going to change my life. It's going to make everything clear. After all these years of being strangers, he's finally going to tell me what it is that goes on in his messy head. He's going to explain why he's the one that isn't afraid of anything.
"Mom wants you to take the towels out of the drier and put the next load in," he says when it finally comes to him. He is thoroughly proud of himself for remembering that much information about anything related to me. I nod slowly, and he turns around, shuffling out of the house. He shuts the door behind him and it echoes through the empty house.
I lift a spoonful of oatmeal out of the bowl and dump it back in. I watch it slowly drip out of my grasp like time. The birds get louder. They are all awake now. The cheerful face of a cartoon leprechaun grins at me as rainbow shapes dance around his head. It must be easy to smile when your life is two-dimensional.
I sit at the breakfast table, staring into a bowl of oatmeal, and wait for my life to begin.