When I come home from school, the house feels empty.
It’s not, but the silence makes it seem that way. Mom stays locked in her room, doesn’t say a word to me when she hears me come up the stairs.
I imagine a conversation between us where she speaks to me.
“How was your day?” she asks, smiling like a Disney Channel mom. Her eyes are bright because she’s happy, and she’s adding a spoonful of sugar to her coffee. Sips it, adds a little more.
I tell her and she listens, smiling at the right places, frowning when it’s appropriate, interjecting with comments from time to time. Her voice has a musical tone to it, like she’s always on the verge of laughter.
But this doesn’t happen because Mom and I don’t talk to each other anymore, unless it’s to fight. We don’t know how to get along, and most of the time she’s too sad to even try.
I close the door to my bedroom when I get to it, and then I am completely alone. Dad won’t be home tonight, just like usual, and Alina’s gone to her boyfriend’s for the evening.
I’m alone. It is me and my thoughts, me and my thoughts, me and my thoughts.
In the morning, I paint my face in the bathroom. Make myself look beautiful. Concealer first, covering every imperfection on my skin, then powder, blush, bronzer, eyeshadow. A few strokes of mascara and then I’m finished.
Alina takes me to school in Mom’s car, because Mom never uses it anymore since she never gets out of the house. Or her room, really, but I try not to think of that on the drive over.
Alina tells me stories about her boyfriend while she drives, her painted fingernails tapping a soft rhythm against the steering wheel. When I’m with Alina, I don’t feel as alone, but that’s part of the problem, since she’s always away. I try not to blame her. If I had an escape from home, I’d use it too.
When we reach the campus, I go meet all the girls at the shaded benches near the cafeteria.
“Arya!” Lara exclaims as soon as I’m in sight, running up to me, her eyes sparkling. “I have so much to tell you.”
I give her a smile, a forced one I tend to use a lot around her, and try to act interested. Lara is my best friend, but most of the time I don’t really like her. She’s b****y and self-absorbed and talks much more than she listens, but I cling to her like she’s a faded memory, because that’s exactly what she is. I’ve known her since Before, when Mom wasn’t sad and Dad came home at night and there were no fights and I had a family.
I can’t bring myself to care about the new gossip Lara shares with me today. Sometimes, talking to her makes me feel even more alone.
There’s a boy. His name is Will and he’s terribly close to perfect, smart and charming and funny with brilliant green eyes that make my body turn fluid when he looks at me a certain way. His voice is honey sweet and smooth, and even though we argue more than we get along, talking to him puts me in a good mood.
We have homeroom together, and after, he’ll sometimes walk with me to my next class, even though his is in the opposite direction.
Today is that sometimes. I fiddle with the strings of my hoodie while we walk. We’re talking about the history project we have due in two days, and he makes some kind of joke about how the teacher resembles one of the Simpsons that makes me laugh.
He stops in front of my classroom now, and looks at me, eyes clear and bright as ever. “You look very pretty today, Arya,” he says seriously. His Adam’s apple bobs in his throat, and he almost looks flustered. “From a certain angle, anyway,” he adds quickly. Dimples cut into his cheeks.
I roll my eyes, a small smile curving on my lips, and he laughs, giving me a backwards glance as he turns away to walk back to his class. Something tingles in my toes and I can’t help the blush that rises in my cheeks.
Moments like these are enough to make me hope. Enough to make me think he feels it too, that he cares the way I want him to. But then there are other times, where entire days go by and we don’t speak to each other once, that make me wonder if it’s all in my head.
Most of my imagined conversations are with him. I pretend I tell him everything, all of it, about Mom and about my friends and about how there are times where I feel so terribly alone I can’t stand it. I pretend he cares enough to listen, and that he gets it, the way I need him to. I pretend he helps.
But this doesn’t happen because I’m too scared to tell him. Because maybe I’m wrong, and he doesn’t care at all. Because he’s handsome and white and has the perfect all-American family, and what could he want with someone like me?
So I let those conversations stay in my imagination, where I can pretend he really is the knight in shining armor come to save me from myself.
For once, Alina is home on the weekend.
She and her boyfriend have gotten into a terrible fight, and she sits in her bed, tears painting her cheeks.
“Oh, Alina,” I say softly, when I see the state of her. I lift the covers and climb in beside her, curling up to her the way I did when I was younger and got nightmares, and she was the one comforting me. She leans in, molding her body to mine, and a teardrop lands on my cheek.
Voices float up from downstairs now, and I pause to listen. Dad has come home, and he and Mom are fighting again. There's something accusatory in her tone, something defensive in his. I can hear Mom begin to cry.
This is such a common occurrence that the sound doesn't even faze me anymore, but Alina cries harder, burrowing her face into my hair. Slowly, the tears start to subside, and she sniffles, sitting up. “I got snot in your hair,” she says, voice apologetic. I cringe, and she laughs, but it’s a hollow sound. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I say immediately. I look up at her. “Do you want to talk about it?”
She hesitates, then shakes her head violently, and I don’t press her. There was a time where she’d want to tell me everything, but that’s gone now. Still, I stay there beside her, silent, and somehow that’s enough.
After a while, we decide to watch a movie. We settle on an old Bollywood film we’ve seen at least twice. She plays it on her laptop, and I shift closer to her, pulling the blankets up to warm my body. It almost feels like old times. We eat stale popcorn and mouth lines along with the actors while we watch.
Dad is leaving. Or rather, he’s already left. He’s found a younger, happier woman who lives in the next town over to start a better life with. Alina and I will see him on the weekends.
When Mom tells me this, I realize this is the first time she’s spoken to me in days.
Lara invites me over to her house. I don’t want to go, but I also don’t want to stay at home, so in the end, I decide to bike over.
It’s just the two of us, and Lara wants to make brownies, so that’s what we do. I measure out the right amount of flour and pour it into a large mixing bowl, along with the other dry ingredients. Lara gets the butter from the fridge and whisks the eggs with the butter until the mixture is nice and fluffy.
While we make the batter, I find myself telling Lara about Dad. How I miss the way things used to be. How it was a long-time coming, but the finality of the divorce makes it all so real. How I want everything to get better, but I’m afraid it won’t.
The words tumble slowly from my lips, tears stinging the backs of my eyes. I haven’t let myself cry in months, and I don’t want to right now, so I blink back rapidly, forcing them back.
“I’m so sorry, Arya.” Lara says, her voice soft. “I feel terrible.”
I wait for her to ask me how I feel, but she doesn’t. Sympathy, maybe pity, paints her face, and I cringe. I don’t want to be pitied. I just want someone to care.
But she doesn’t, not really, because barely a minute passes before she says, “I have some good news that’ll make you feel better.” She pauses here, smiling lightly. “Alex Thompson asked me out!”
My mouth falls open. She mistakes my expression for pleasant surprise, and nods excitedly. “I know!” she squeals. “It was totally unexpected and—”
“Lara,” I interrupt softly, squeezing my eyes shut, because I can’t believe even she would be this insensitive. Blue spots dance in front of my vision. “Please shut up. I don't care about Alex.”
She squints at me, eyes narrowed in confusion. “What?”
“Shut up!” I say, loudly this time, and she stares back at me, completely astonished, because I have never in my life spoken down to Lara. She fumbles for words, forehead creased with shock.
If I weren’t so angry, I could have laughed at her expression. “I need to go,” I say, before she has a chance to respond.
On the bike home, I feel a strange calm settle over me. I shouldn’t have expected any form of real empathy from Lara, but I hadn’t been thinking straight. And it felt good to finally talk back to her.
Mom won’t eat the dinner Alina makes. She won’t speak, either.
Alina stops trying after a few minutes and instead locks herself in her room. After a few moments, I hear her start to cry, and the sound makes me so angry at Mom I can’t think.
“This isn’t easy for us either,” I tell her loudly. Tears blur my vision, and frustrated, I wipe them away. I don’t want to cry, ever, and especially not in front of her, but I can’t help it.
Mom looks up at the sound of my voice. Surprise mingles on her face, but then it fades, and she looks away, too sad to care. A kind of weighted grief is settled into her expression, and she looks tired, more than anything. Normally I would feel bad for her, but I can’t today.
I think of Alina crying, of Dad leaving, really leaving, of all the imagined conversations and loneliness and the hope I don’t really feel anymore, and it’s enough to make me want to scream. I look away for a moment, my teeth clamped down hard on my lips to keep myself from crying any more, and something burns the back of my eyes.
Mom turns to me and opens her mouth like she’s going to say something, but then she doesn’t. Just sits there. Silent, as usual.
I feel renewed anger flare up in me, white hot and bitter. “You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself,” I spit at her. “You are not the only one hurting.”
The next morning, I avoid the shaded benches by the cafeteria. Instead, I go directly to homeroom. I have to cut around the back to avoid being seen, past the faded murals and the old building with its peeling alabaster-painted walls. Lara will no doubt have told the other girls what happened between us over the weekend, and though I don't regret what I said, the last thing I want is a confrontation.
I’m still reeling from the events of last night. I’ve never shouted at Mom, not like that, and a part of me feels terrible about it. Another part of me doesn’t.
She didn’t say anything to me yesterday, or this morning, when I came downstairs to her making coffee in the kitchen. I was surprised to see her outside of her bedroom, but I didn't know how to talk to her, what the correct protocol was for the morning after an I-told-you-to-get-over-your-depression fight, so instead I took the easy way out and left the house quickly without a word.
I fiddle with my journal in front of me now, trying to act busy so no one comes to talk to me, but then Will sits down in the chair beside me. “Hey, Arya.”
I look up. His dark hair is wet like he just got out of the shower and he’s wearing a white T-shirt with a pair of jeans. My chest tightens a little at the sight of him, and I swallow, looking away.
“Your seat is on the other side of the classroom,” I say softly, because I hate that he’s here and can see me like this, looking like the before picture in any makeover scene from the movies. My hair is unwashed and unkempt and hangs limply down my shoulders, and there are purple shadows under my eyes, symptoms of a sleepless night. He probably doesn't think I'm very pretty anymore.
Will frowns a little at my words, which is expected because I'm being rude, but he doesn't leave. “Class doesn’t start for another ten minutes,” he reminds me instead.
Something like frustration rises up in me, and I turn to him, eyes flashing, ready to say something cruel so he’ll hate me and leave me alone the way I always am. But then I falter, because he’s sitting so close to me and then I realize how I don’t really want to be alone.
He’s still staring at me, worry creased in the center of his brow. He smells of coconut shampoo and something else that’s unrecognizable and sweet, and he’s near enough for me to count the pale freckles on his nose if I wanted to.
“Are you feeling okay?” he asks, tentative, no louder than a whisper. Something about the concern in his voice makes me want to cry, and I pick at the chipped polish on my fingernails so I don’t. “You look upset.”
I look at him. I open my mouth to respond, but I don’t trust my voice to work anymore. No one, not Mom, not Lara, not Alina, has asked about how I’m feeling in the longest time, and it feels terribly nice for someone to care.
I push a piece of hair behind my ear and clear my throat, force myself to speak. “I’ll be fine,” I say. And somehow, once the words leave my lips, I make myself believe it.