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His feet pounded hard and without effort in tattered sneakers, racing faster than his thoughts. He watched and listened as his breath appeared, frosty whispers in front of him – in and out, in and out – following the rhythm of left-foot-right-foot-left-foot-right. The pounding of his feet, his chest, drowned out the thoughts, and if there were tears, they were from the wind whipping its retaliation in his face.
He reached the corner and checked his watch, knowing he needed to be back soon. They'd wonder where he'd been, but the question pertained more to the list of responsibilities he had failed to fulfill than whether he was okay.
Okay was a strange word. It peeked its head up in his SAT-ready vocabulary with meek rarity. There was plenty of space in the Gilmore household – his mother preferred a squared-away, minimalist look – but there was no room for “okay.”
Craig did not pause long enough to catch his breath for fear his thoughts would catch up too. He made his way back, less vigor in his pace now; the best part of his day was over. Dinner would be served soon.
As he approached the house, his mind was alight with lucidity. He had always endured the nightly family dinner in numbness, stabbing at slabs of chicken and answering his parents' questions in a voice that was not his. Today, however, he promised himself a new awareness. His teachers had always been his main source of wisdom, his firmest and most encouraging beacons of light, so when his English teacher assigned that they only be aware and present as they went about their evening, he took on the task with a vengeance. He would examine his family, his study habits, his every inhale-exhale as he studied, ate, and spoke. Perhaps then he would begin to understand why everything felt so wrong.
Craig turned the doorknob and was immediately overwhelmed with the familiar Gilmore household. Bright lights slashed like knives across clean white surfaces, glaring at him as if this were his own personal arena, in which through no choice of his own he must perform, and perform well. He inhaled air tinged with pine-scented air freshener – his mother's favorite – and listened closely as his every step, no matter how gingerly made, disturbed the careful quiet that permeated the house. As usual, his mother was in the kitchen, and as he approached she looked up expectantly.
“Your books are all over the dining room table,” she said in her quiet, expressionless voice of authority. “Kindly put them away and set the table. Dinner will be served in ten minutes.”
As he walked away he wondered, as he often did, whether most mothers were this immovable cement foundation. There had to be some emotion, hadn't there? She had come from a broken home, his father had told him in one of his more candid moments of tipsy, and she wanted nothing more than to maintain absolute perfection within her house and all its inhabitants. So when she called one SAT tutor after another and sent out scholarship applications and pushed him into extracurricular activities she deemed ideal, he could never be sure whether it was him or his successes she loved.
Among the binders, notebooks, and textbooks sprawled across the dining room table was his AP Biology textbook, open to a chapter on symbiotic relationships. It caught his eye, and he paused. Symbiosis naturally occurred between members of different species, and yet he felt there was nothing more relevant to his interactions with his fellow members of the human race. Craig was a scientist, a philosopher, a psychoanalyst – in his own mind, at least – and so he began to observe.
“When's dinner?” a voice bellowed from down the hall. “I'm starved.”
My father, the parasite, Craig thought. And aren't we all his hosts?
When they were all seated around the table, staring at the well-dressed salad and the roasted chicken that gleamed with his mother's sauce, Craig's dad was the first to dig in.
“So!” His voice as usual was several decibels louder than the situation called for, and yet his words were so heavily slurred that he still could not be easily understood. “How was everyone's day?”
“Great! My gymnastics meet was phenomenal!” Piper chimed in, her eyes flashing brightly. A spunky, spritely girl of twelve, she never let a silence pass uninterrupted, especially one as uncomfortable as a Gilmore silence.
“Win any medals?” her father asked between sips of beer.
“Well, yes. Gold,” she said with reluctance, eyeing the bottle in his hand with distaste. “But that's not the point. It was fun!”
If there were anyone with whom his relationship could be described as mutualistic, in which both parties benefited, it was Piper. While still in middle school, she excelled in all her classes, and when it came to gymnastics she was, to use her word, phenomenal. Don't try so hard in middle school, he used to tell her. It doesn't matter yet. But this was where she differed from him.
Piper pushed herself because she wanted to, because her endless ambition was an end in its own right. Her cynical insights about the world Craig was drowning in kept him afloat; her hopeful inquisitiveness helped him believe that his senseless struggle for brilliance ultimately had some purpose; her humor made him calm when his stomach churned with thoughts of the future and failure, words that were almost synonymous in his mind.
He, in return, drove her to her friends' houses. After all, Craig reasoned, whoever said both organisms must benefit equally?
Soon enough, the interrogator's eyes were onto him, and thoughts of Piper slipped away. He answered his father's inquiries with an awareness he had never had before, and he made note, as if in a lab report, of the way his heart raced when his father asked about his math grades and the way his spine stiffened when his father scoffed about his jog.
A football hero and champion boxer in high school, his father had been the one who taught Craig to push himself to his physical limits as well as his mental ones. Yet he scoffed at running, dismissing it as a pastime for cowards afraid to do battle with anyone but themselves. In Craig's mind, that was the most valiant and futile battle of all.
His mother was the one who silenced Mr. Gilmore. With a wave of her hand and a quiet “That's enough about Craig, Mike,” she restored the orderly clinking of forks and scraping of knives that the Gilmores found comforting. Craig looked at her, puzzled over her lack of investment. To him, she was a vast, expressionless whale, and the rest of them barnacles that clung to her stable surface. Her husband's decline from high school sweetheart and local hero to town drunk had affected her about as much as the emotional breakdown of an ant on the sidewalk. Her son's successes garnered no reaction beyond an obligatory pat on the back. Some biologists claimed that commensalism – symbiosis that benefitted one party and left the other unaffected – was possible only in theory, but Craig believed he had an example right here.
After the nightly questions were over, the dishes scraped clean, and the chairs pushed in neatly, Craig retreated to the upstairs bathroom, where he removed his shirt and stared himself down in the mirror. There was a hint of his father when Craig looked closely; he found it in his dark hair, his pale skin, and his hazel eyes that burned with determination. But where his father seemed chiseled out of stone, Craig's jaw was pointed, his cheeks gaunt and elongated, as if his visage took the permanent shape of a close-lipped gasp. Where his father's muscles rippled, Craig's clung apologetically to calcium-supplemented bones, and where his father was alabaster, Craig was putty. He searched his face with the pain at the resemblance and relief at the differences. He was a host, not a parasite; he was no high school burnout. His flame had only just begun to burn, he told himself as he stepped into the shower, and it would not be extinguished anytime soon.