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He tried to force it up as he knelt on the brown-tiled floor. Out, he needed it out - out of his system, out of his life, out of his head. The taupe walls around him held him close, familiar like the embrace of a loved one as he cowered on the floor.
He knew no one would try to come in, but he always locked the door, like his mother had told him to do at home when the Mormons came with their suits, books, and distaste for coffee and freedom of thought. But the worry wasn’t really about people. It was a matter of security in mind as well as denial. This was his secret, his weapon against those who had so many more to use against him.
Once he’d used his fists. His second-string Game Boy arms flying into motion as a well-toned arm pushed back at him, laying him flat on the ground, jaw burning more than the familiar feeling of hot pavement pressed against his cheek. He hurt. The pain burned and melted his bones into a fiery mass flowing between his muscles and tendons, but his pride burned more. Incinerated, he spat out the iron-tainted spit. He said nothing, didn’t open his eyes.
“Hey have a nice trip home, stud,” the tanned aggressor sneered.
Blurred faces gawped open as laughter surrounded him thicker than the hot tar.
Maybe next time he’d have a comeback. Next time. He knew it would happen again, but he already knew defeat and he felt so helpless, so useless.
They left, but he didn’t move until a lifetime later.
On arriving home, his sister looked up from the couch. She paled as she saw the dried results of a split gum smeared across his face like a brand - a mark indicating who he was and exactly how much he meant to the world.
“God,” she whispered, “Oh my God.”
A hushed string of profanity followed, words that a sixth grader with wisps of blond hair shouldn’t know, but he didn’t say anything, and she didn’t move from the couch. Her legs stayed curled beneath her, like a kitten, as he dropped his fraying backpack on the floor and proceeded to wash his face off with shaking, bony hands. She watched him pass by and slowly set her book down to rest on a faded cushion, a finger marking the grubby page as she clung to it, her knuckles only a shade whiter than her cheeks.
Animal Farm. He’d never been able to get through the entire book but this had to be her fifth or sixth time through it. At times she’d tried to convince him the magic of words, the way they grabbed at her fingers with delicate little black hands of their own and whispered of hidden worlds with carefully formed voices, taking her away to somewhere beautiful, but he could never get there. The promises of weekly visits to the library shone golden in her eyes, and made her face break open into a radiant smile of hope and love as big as any word she’d ever come across, but the armies of shelves and the revolutionary thoughts and ideas lurking there were too much for him to take, so he quickly walked past them as he made his pilgrimage to downstairs with a muttered excuse of finding some obscure book about composers of the sixteenth century or whaling.
He hated the misery and lack of conviction in his voice as he mumbled these semblances of normalcy. He hated the weakness he saw reflected in her hazel eyes. He hated how her mouth would close together in the middle as the sides would turn down, the once golden light diminishing as quickly as it had sparked. He always thought of those stars when he looked at her, the ones that were the brightest of all and faded the fastest. Supernovas, she might have told him, if he had vocalized and floundered for the word. She wasn’t stupid. She was anything but. She understood that there was something else going on, but she didn’t ask. Porcelain called to him as paper called to her.
She would turn away, hands already being taken by the coaxing of another voice, another story. She never followed him.
He would practically jog down the seventies-remnant orange carpeted stairs, his bulky cargo pants beating against his legs as they alternated falls. A toothbrush, a tube of Mentos, a small plastic cup, numerous pencils and random debris, hit against each other with dull clanks like chains that bound him to his battered self.
Once or twice he’d seen people down here. They were never younger than their late forties, and they would give him only a brief glance as he shuffled past. He didn’t generally attract much attention. Only from those who got too much of it on the football and soccer fields, who so kindly shared it with him in the gut, in the jaw, between the legs; fists and feet meeting flesh through baggy clothing, and their satisfaction was tangible.
Just thinking about it made it start coming up, acidic relief setting his organs churning into turmoil. He pushed open the door in the poorly lit hallway tucked behind the out-of-date encyclopedias. The light was always on in there, waiting for him. He had never seen anyone else come through that door, and he felt better passing through that frame, his own pearly gates, although heaven probably didn’t have the harsh fluorescent lighting.
Locking the door, he didn’t once look in the mirror and his knobby knees hit tile as he sunk to the floor. He pushed the toilet seat up and clutched the cold rim with tense and shaking muscles. He squeezed his eyes shut against the flickering greenish lights and thought of everything: the cops, who had brought back his father two nights ago with a warning – what the hell did that mean anyway? – his mom, who had cried all night into a pillow, trying – willing – her children not to hear; his sister, who had padded barefoot into his room and sat by his bed, not touching him as she read Gulliver’s Travels, not making a sound as she tried to escape the hushed and muted house they all wished they weren’t in, and his father...
Here his chest burned and he knew at the lightest trigger it would be heaving soon. His dad, who couldn’t hold a job; his dad who couldn’t give back the love his family tenuously tried to maintain.
His dad who, wild-eyed, tried to explain away the hidden bottles around the house – a sick game of hide-and-seek that his family had... What? Won? Lost? Found out they had been playing for all these years? His dad, who left the house, leaving his wife and children to wince as the door slammed shut behind him; his dad who might come home that night or possibly the next morning, maybe not even then.
It was all so broken. His dad, passed out in a dark room, drowned in his weakness. His mom drained of the abundance of love that had always seemed so infinite when she used to look into her family’s eyes. His sister, who had so much there, so much to give to the world but who could only turn to torn pages and broken spines.
He had nothing – he was nothing – but the curved white contours of the vast bowl expanding in front of him, and he opened his eyes only to see the world blurred and out of focus. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Wasn’t it only girls who cried? Chauvinism wasn’t really his to adopt. After all, who was the one who never shed a tear, whose hungry gaze was the only thing to fall onto an open book, and who was the one who always found himself kneeling on the bathroom floor, acting like only models and image-obsessed teenage girls were expected to act?
The disgust he felt for his father’s problems, his mother’s weakness, his sister’s silence, his classmates’ contempt couldn’t begin to compare to the amount he felt for himself. He was disgusted with every part of his broken, empty self. He was disgusted with his hands as they reached for the familiar toothbrush in his pocket. He was disgusted with his fingers as they brushed against the Mentos and the plastic cup he knew he would use to wash away and cover up his weekly antidote.
Still, he knew it would work like a charm, as he would bring out the toothbrush and stick it deep in his throat. The churning would stop, the nausea would end. It would sting, but that was the small price he had to pay for relief from the bitterness being kept inside.
He closed his eyes once again, and he turned himself inside out.