Before I knew better, I wanted for there to be two of me, identical in every way, even in memory. She would have been my foil that wasn’t able to betray me; she would not have been able to point out my flaws because she would have them too. But she would have taken care of all the things that I couldn't, or didn't want to.
"Ok, close your eyes and concentrate, Billie."
Being in two places at once was similarly appealing. There was magic in the idea that I could be somewhere one second, and then instantly somewhere else, no one knowing that I had gone. Always within multiple existences but never belonging to any of them. A ghost within my own life.
But that was until I learned how to do it. Until it became a source of frustration because I couldn’t master it. Until the idea had lost its magic because I was struggling with my own.
But, I did as I was told.
My mother continued. "Now imagine a place you want to go. Someplace you know well. Picture it in your head. Got it?"
I nodded. I thought about my grandmother's house, my home away from home. My shelter from the storm. I knew my way around it like the back of my hand.
"Pick a specific spot in that place and focus. Remember everything that's in that space: the smells, the way things look, the way things felt, the way you feel or felt in that space. You are now in that space."
White walls. They had a weird texture, abrasive. It hurt when I rubbed my fingers over the peaks. And they began to solidify from a thin mist, surrounding me as if I were in my old bedroom. It was slow at first. The beginning of a transference always gave me the sensation of waking from a dream; I practiced, no... strived for the foggy haze that comes with waking up naturally but not wanting to let go of who I was or what I was feeling in that place, that time, that I will never be able to return to. I pushed into it and the bed became a solid object underneath me, no longer the hard barstool in my parent's kitchen. I could touch the bedspread, trace the cotton flowers that made the floral design. I could hear the wind chimes outside and I could smell fresh air through the open windows.
I sat completely still, afraid that any touch, any movement- even my shallow breath- would unravel the thin thread that kept me tethered to this place. I inhaled, exhaled. Everything remained steady. Inhale. Exhale. Nothing changed.
I stood and walked around the room. It was just as I had remembered. Barbie's and their accessories in one corner, board games on the dresser. My stuffed animals were on my neatly made bed and a big box of Legos sat at the foot of it. Things I had forgotten with time were now right there in front of me. I had put myself into a time that I grieved for regularly. If I were a different kind of person, I might have curled into the fetal position and never left. But instead of despair I felt pride. And then something caught my eye.
My grandmother was German, and she had visited frequently. On one of those trips, she brought me back an alarm clock, shaped like a rooster. I had laughed when I saw it: it was funny looking with big eyes and a clock in its belly. But then my grandmother set it. And suddenly it was crowing. "Hit the top of it's head," her grandmother had told me. When I did, the rooster stopped crowing and sang "guten morgen." From that moment on I loved it, cherished it.
I had forgotten about it. It had gotten lost in a move (although I had suspicions there was foul play at hand) and my father bought me a new alarm clock. My phone replaced that one. My rooster hadn't been thought of for years.
Until this moment.
Feeling comfortable that I could hold on to my transference, I reached out to touch the cuckoo alarm clock on my nightstand.
It devolved into mist around my hand.
And then everything else began to melt away with it.
I was losing it. I was always losing it.
I squeezed my eyes tightly. "Come on, come on," I pleaded. I tried to bring the walls back up around me. Tried to make the bed, with it's outdated flower blanket, substantial. Tried to smell the fresh air and hear the wind chimes. But it was no use. I was back in my own kitchen, on that hard barstool, sitting across from my mother.
Exasperated, I ran my fingers through my hair.
"Billie. Calm down." I could hear it in my mother's voice: the annoyance at the display of emotion. The irritation because she didn't want to be helping me in the first place.
"I had it," I whined.
"It takes time. It all takes time. And lots of practice." Mrs. Robinson got up from the counter and poured herself a cup of coffee and walked out of the room. She kept talking as if she knew that I would keep up to listen because I always did. "Are you stressed? It seems like you're blocked. Maybe try and get some stressors out of your life."
Patricia walked into the office and sat down behind the computer. She slid her glasses on.
"And how do I do that?" I asked. "Between school, the art show, college applications, SATs, this..." I was looking for guidance. I didn't want to feel alone in this.
My mother shrugged. "I don't know. You'll figure it out."
I looked up at the ceiling. "Well, thanks for helping."
Patricia was already immersed in work, the blue light from the computer screen reflected back through her glasses. She mumbled something about my Guardian that I didn't quite hear but the interaction with me had become a distant inconvenience. She had completed her obligation for the day. I was unlikely to receive help from her anytime soon. Shit, today had been a miracle.
I stood in the doorway, watching. Hoping. "I'm going to go to school now."
When nothing else was said, I slowly backed out of the room.
At school, I threw my books in my locker and tried to shake off the way I was feeling. I was disappointed, sure. Spatial manipulation wasn't something that was coming easy to me and it was frustrating. But I knew what disappointment felt like. I had become used to it because I had felt it many times before. I was pushing myself to do something that had proven to be almost impossible for my line of Descendants and I was doing it just to be able to say that I could. So, I was going to fail. A lot. Failing was not ideal, but it wasn't what this feeling was.
Melancholy? Heartache? I hadn't wanted to say goodbye...
I stood up on my tip toes to grab my English books from the top shelf, and questioned why I continued to put them up there. I reached, double checked that my cardigan was buttoned over my shirt, so a nun wouldn't walk by and yell at me for showing skin. I shoved Oedipus and my composition book into my backpack, slammed my locker, and trudged to class.
Walking, I twirled my pen between my fingers, around my hand. And when I felt I was losing my grip, I willed it back. I did it over and over again, practicing a skill I had already mastered. A skill that had become as thoughtless as chewing gum. It made me feel better about that morning.
The Weeknd blasted in my headphones and I found myself slowing down to finish listening, slowing down to capture the moment and the sound, to savor my last few moments of freedom.
Nobody needs to fall in love
I swear I'm just a bird
Girl, I'm just another bird
Don't make me make you fall in love...
And I rounded the corner into 1st period.
"Think about the discussion we had yesterday. Tiresias... a man who cannot see, is the wisest character in this story... all seeing if you will." Mr. Peterson, a tall blond with a scruffy beard and an affection for leather accented tweed blazers, chuckled at his own joke. "Now, Oedipus the King, the man who should know everything, is probably the most ignorant character. Ironic, right?" He let the question hang in the air as if he had wanted an answer. At some point, he must have decided it was rhetorical. "It's only after all things are revealed that Oedipus loses his sight... thus becoming like Tiresias..." he threw up air quotes, "... all seeing."
I looked down at my notebook for something to do. Among the obligated identification (Billie Robinson, 1st period, Advanced English III) were a series of doodles and declarations of love (Mrs. Billie Pratt, Mrs. Simon Pratt). But I didn't want to add to it. I debated scratching out his name and making it official but I didn't want to do that either, so I stared out the window. Mr. Peterson was still going on about the play that I had only read the SparkNotes for. It wasn't as if I didn't love literature or a good incest story when I heard one. I couldn't identify what I was feeling and it was all that I could think about. So staring was my only option, and as I stared, the clouds began to mold into shapes and I could almost hear the grass swaying to a sound of its own.
The walls began to close in then. I closed my eyes to get rid of the claustrophobia, and as if on cue, I heard a loud wail.
I jumped up. Mr. Peterson was saying, "No reason to be alarmed. Get it? Single file all the way to the north exit."
Instinctively, we found our way into the procession of matching plaid uniforms until all the students were outside. It had been something instilled in us since preschool. Lockstep, single file, all the way to the nearest exit.
Once outside, I inhaled the fresh air. I let it rush over me and I felt like I could breathe again. I was in my element.
I needed to find Tori. Hopefully before Simon found me.
I pushed through the crowd, past groups of friends and loners that were standing by themselves. I was looking for a curly mess of black hair like my own.
I headed towards the football field, and edged in between some while guiding others to one side or the other. I had reached the football players, but couldn't see over them. They were loud and obnoxious, swearing at each other and high- fiving and guffawing. I rolled my eyes, disgusted. Nothing about the way they behaved was attractive. I couldn't get through them or around them and I said excuse me several times but they didn't seem to hear. I reached out to touch one, to get him to move, and a static shock like I had never felt before knocked me back a few steps.
It was Caleb Young.
Suddenly I was thinking about childhood and elementary and middle school. All shared experiences. Dislike and hope and all the things that go into young relationships flooded back. Once we hit high school our link was beyond repair or hope, a friendship that was lost. A relationship that would never come to fruition. We had become little fish in a huge pond.
"Are you ok?" He reached out to help me and I instinctively backed away from his grasp.
"I'm fine," I muttered.
"That was weird, huh?" he asked and all I could do was nod and rub my arm that was still vibrating with electricity.
I felt like I should say something. But my mouth wouldn't open. Caleb patiently regarded me and turned his head to the side before he sighed. "I saw Tori walking that way." He pointed in the direction I had been trying to go anyways.
It shocked me that he didn't need to ask. Years of disregarding the other and it was like he was reading my mind.
"I'll see you later?" he asked. But it was more a statement than a question.
I nodded. I tried to smile. Had words come out of my mouth? Maybe I had just stood there. God, you're such a dork. I could feel my face distort in a way that probably frightened him more than anything.
He looked amused, but turned back to his friends.
Without the distraction and with what seemed like a dismissal, I turned to find my friend before the fire drill was over.
I thought back to every recess, every talk, every occurrence where Caleb and I were ever put in a space together and made to interact. Had we ever touched?
I found Tori underneath the big oak in the lot next to our school. It sat on top of a mound. "Big Hill Tree" was what the kids at my school had named it.
The kids at my school weren't very imaginative.
Tori was surrounded by our usual group of friends. Denise, Mary and Elizabeth (twins) and guys who had probably tagged along because they were in the same classes. Tori was staring up at the sky. She was humming but stopped when I approached. "Do you ever think about abnormalities and conspiracy theories and shit like that? I wonder if it's good to fall down the rabbit hole sometimes."
Tori looked a lot like me, same hair, same tawny skin. But, Tori was a dancer and filled out Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow's uniform much better than I did.
"Are you high?" I asked her.
Tori turned to me and smiled. "Calm down. Calm down. I'm not you. No, I'm not high."
I sat in the dewy grass. The mysticism it had created during class was gone, and it was no longer sharing its song with me. I bit my lip, plucked a few blades, watched Tori unconsciously move from 1st position to 2nd position to 3rd. I laid down in Denise's lap and Denise began to run her fingers through my hair. I winced; my hair would become frizzy but I didn't say anything to her, let her keep on picking up piece by piece and playing with it. Denise was asking the boys if they knew her boyfriend, a guy that had already graduated. No, they didn't know him personally but yes, they had heard of him. She gushed about how much she loved him but I wasn't so sure. I thought about times when I exaggerated to hide the truth and then asked myself what Denise could be hiding. The twins changed the subject; I watched them flirt: play slap and laugh at jokes that weren't funny. I never liked that dance, but a part of me couldn't help but want to be asked.
After getting Tori's attention, we moved away from the group and I proceeded to tell my best friend what had just happened, making sure that the others were preoccupied. I couldn't wrap my mind around what it was about running into Caleb and our interaction that made it newsworthy. Or why it hurt my stomach a little thinking about it. Or why it was producing this much anxiety.
"What's so funny?"
"You. You've heard the stories about him, right? He's not the same kid we knew in elementary school. You might have had a moment with him, but so has every other girl in this school. And the girls in the public schools. And the girls at the university..."
I leaned back on my hands and sighed. "What if it was a serious thing though?" I inflected, hoping that Tori would get the hint.
"Well was it?" she stopped practicing and sat next to me. Close enough now that we could whisper.
I considered. "I don't think so. If he were a Descendant, I would have sensed him by now."
"Hmmm. So... not a serious thing then." She was rubbing my nose in it. She liked to be the realist, the voice of reason.
Tori shook her head and smoothed out her skirt. She looked as if she was ruminating, like she had something to say. But she didn't get a chance to say anything. Over the P.A. system the principal announced the end of the drill.
A chorus of grumbles emanated through the crowd, followed by the lethargic movement of students back to their classes.
Denise, the twins, and the boys began to walk back. Tori grumbled and then got up. I watched her. I studied my friend as she took one step in front of the other, bounded to routine and sameness. I wanted to know what she had been thinking, what she was going to say; I hated silence and not knowing. And it seemed that Tori was deliberately keeping her opinion to herself.
It was in that moment that I told myself that I couldn't deal. I didn't know what it was, but the thought of returning back to class and back to that routine and back to that sameness brought about a physical reaction that I was sure would manifest itself at some point in the day and would send me home anyway.
I shot up and started walking in the opposite direction.
"What are you doing?" Tori asked. The others were already too far gone.
"Skipping. Come join me?"
I knew that my friend wouldn't interpret it as a question, and I was triumphant when Tori looked from me, to the school, back to me, finally deciding to follow the dust I was leaving behind.
I was stupid. I knew I was being stupid. Even Tori knew that I had lost my mind. And yet I proceeded to do the stupid thing anyway.
As much as I didn't want to admit it, the fact that I hadn't seen Simon during the fire drill had bothered me. Sure enough, as I walked past his house his car was parked outside, along with a few others.
"This isn't worrisome behavior at all," Tori said.
I ignored her.
"Do you honestly think this is smart?"
"Where else are we going to go?"
Tori shrugged. I was right. There was no other place to hide out. Our town was claustrophobic. Everyone knew everyone else. If we didn’t find some place to spend a few hours, we were bound to be found out. So we walked to the door, rang the bell. I briefly considered turning back, but he was already opening the door to let me in.
"Decided to skip with me?" He looked smug.
"I didn't know you'd be here. I skipped on my own," I replied. It sounded juvenile; as the words came out of my mouth I knew that I sounded like a child. However, I couldn't give him the satisfaction of thinking any of my choices had anything to do with him.
"Well, welcome." He pretended to bow with arms outstretched. I smiled in spite of myself.
He led us to the basement where two other guys I recognized were playing video games on the floor. Tori and I sat on the basement couch, practically on top of each other, each of us protecting the other subconsciously.
I had been here many times before. Simon and I had been on again, off again for almost two years. At one point in my life I felt like I lived in his basement. There was a familiarity with its worn leather couches, large flat screen, surround system, eight different gaming systems, pool table, and access to his bedroom. He called it his man cave. The irony wasn't lost me: he was neither a man nor did he own any of it.
Tori and I both nodded. I was parched, my stomach was doing somersaults, and by the look of Tori, I could only assume she was feeling the same, if not worse. If I was the Houdini of skipping school, Tori was your local birthday party magician.
Now that we were there and I was in his orbit, I wished that we had gone to my house. My parents probably weren't there anyway. Being at Simon's added something else to the reprehensibility of being someplace you weren't supposed to be while everyone believed that you were someplace else. It was something that ate at me the entire time I was there. Something like dread. I never let go of the guilty pit in my stomach. I hoped that the alcohol would help. So, when Simon came back with the E & J and Dr.Pepper, I was more than happy to see him; more than happy to have something that would numb and quiet the voices.
"You're being a very good host, Simon," I complimented him.
"I aim to please." He sat next to me, put his arm around my shoulders and kissed me on the cheek. I leaned into it grateful for the ease at which we played this game, and then we resumed a comfortableness that I wasn't sure I even wanted, had never been unsure that I wanted, and which fact made me uncomfortable to think about. We watched the other two boys: Daniel from my chemistry class (who was never there), and the other I had seen but didn't know personally.
Tori found a place on the floor and was talking to Daniel in between his manic video game motions and swearing. I was all at once thankful for her distraction but anxious about what that meant for me.
Simon slid closer and whispered in my ear that he had missed me. I made sure the others weren't paying attention when I told him that I missed him too. That made him smile and scoot closer.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
I didn't know how to answer him. So I didn't say anything and instead looked straight ahead at Tori, who was trying to flirt. That's when I knew for sure: if I had been smart I wouldn't have come here.
We continued to sip our drinks and then suddenly his arm was behind me and he was laughing at something Daniel had said.
His lazy blue eyes creased in the corner: a true laugh. God he was beautiful.
I leaned forward to say something to Tori. He leaned back and when I looked back at him, he was looking at me. So cool. Too cool. The coolest.
He echoed my thoughts back to me. "You're beautiful."
I subconsciously tucked my hair behind my ear, realized I was doing it, realized what it meant.
He jumped to his feet. "Wanna dance?" He stood up and pulled me to my feet and as we swayed back and forth to The 1975 he kissed my neck. I knew what this was; we had been around the board before. But he fit me like my favorite sneaker and when I was bored I never minded the sport. As I breathed in the smell of him and relished in the fact that for once I didn’t feel alone, I wondered if it was right, if this was right, if this is what it was supposed to feel like. How would I even know?
We spent the late morning in a haze of youthfulness, carelessness, drink and smoke- that of which, I was sure was my own product that I had given him at some point. We laid on the floor and listened to music and talked about our parents and our school and our loaded expectations. I was sure that in a past life Simon had been a philosopher, because in this one he was a deep stoner. He seemed to feel everything more than everybody else. He seemed to know more than everybody else. Needed help with history homework? He was the one to go to, and he'd answer the question like he'd been there. One of the things that I enjoyed about spending time with him was that I could see the world differently through his eyes. I saw myself differently through his eyes, which was euphoric on his good days, but hell on his bad.
The other two boys had stopped playing games and all of us laid out on the floor like a starfish. Simon turned to me and ran the back of his hand along the side of my face. I grabbed hold of it and smiled at him.
"I wasn't bullshitting you before. I've really missed you."
My heart jumped a little. I knew what was coming next. I didn't want it to but it did and I couldn't stop it from coming out of my mouth even if I had tried. "I've really missed you, too." I had jumped out of my body and hovered over it. Watching myself make the same mistakes and fall back into the same patterns.
Hoover me wanted to punch actual me in the face.
"Wanna get away from the group for a few? Go to my room?"
I looked at Tori who was preoccupied talking excitedly with Daniel. The other kid had fallen asleep. I couldn't think of a reason not to in the split second it should have taken to decide, so out of boredom, out of nostalgia, and out of the sheer need to be wanted, I said, "sure."
We left Simon's when we would have been leaving school. He had fallen asleep and so I didn't say goodbye.
Tori decided she was sleeping over.
We sought refuge in my room that afternoon. We camped out on the floor and listened to bad pop music. I shied away from social media: I didn't want to hear about the drill or what came after. More importantly, I didn't want to risk seeing Simon's face on my phone screen.
I was no longer buzzed and no longer had alcohol as an excuse. It wasn't love. I didn't know what to call it, besides toxic. Whenever I let him near, I felt corrupted in some way. My file was no longer readable. He strung me along, and then in retaliation I strung him along. We slept together when we were bored. We each watched the other one entertain other people (how far he took it, I was never quite sure) and yet as miserable as he made me, I found myself in a sick cycle with him. Over and over again...
Over and over again...
"It's funny how you see someone every day and you never know..." Tori's words were audible but hard to focus on.
"He's cute, right? I don't know... do you think he's cute?"
"You're not listening."
I stopped chewing on my nails and refocused my distracted gaze on Tori. "Yeah I am."
"No you're not. But I forgive you."
I nodded my head. Not really understanding. Not really caring.
Later that night at dinner, I avoided everyone's gaze. There was a pit at the bottom of my stomach and a gnawing that had been chewing away at me all day until I was afraid there would be nothing left.
I felt like nothing.
I was picking at the cheese on my pizza and only half listening to the conversation around me.
"Billie started out as just the nickname, but we soon realized that it was so much easier to just go with it," my mother was saying. They were talking about my name... again. A name that they were proud of. A name that had made me the butt of several elementary school jokes.
"But why Wilhelmina?" Tori asked.
"She hasn't told you?" Patrick, my father, asked her in between bites of mostly cheese.
Tori shook her head no, and I wondered if anyone had seen me roll my eyes. It was fake. The entire interaction was contrived and I could see it for what it was. The only time we ate as a family was to put on a show. Tori knew this. And yet she was participating in the farce. I had told her the story before, but it was laced with the knowledge that I was a Descendant. My parents had told this story before, I was sure. Perhaps Tori just wanted to avoid accidentally divulging that she knew my secret, knew my family's secret.
"She's named after her great great aunt. There may be another great in there," he added. "Names are very important in this family."
"There are boxes of her shit still in the attic," I interjected.
"Language," my mother cried.
I know I rolled my eyes then. "Everyone who ever lived in this house left their SHIT upstairs."
When my mother had inherited the house from her mother who had never lived in it, the old plantation home was a single family home that had been part of the family for generations. As I got older I appreciated the irony of an interracial couple raising their mixed race daughter in a home that would have been a symbol of oppression for 2/3 of us just 200 years ago.
The house had always been intended for just one family, even though it was more room than any one family needed. My mother, always business savvy, turned it into a bed and breakfast. When that became an inconvenience and too much work, she converted most of the house into a training facility for the Descendant hunts, with bedrooms for the other Descendants to stay. We lived on the top floor: 3000 feet for three people. You never had to look at another person if you didn't want to. And most of the time I didn't want to.
I threw down my half eaten piece of pizza. "I'm done." I pushed back the chair and left the room. I had an aversion to bullshit and my stomach was starting to hurt.
I could still hear murmurs coming from the dining room after I had gone. I felt bad for leaving Tori by herself. She was no doubt trying to maneuver herself back into my room. But when she didn't return 5, 10, 20 minutes later, I went searching.
I could hear them in the kitchen, washing the dishes. Not wanting to be seen, I hung in the shadows that the hallway created and listened.
"She worries me sometimes. It's funny that we talked about her name because she's a lot like the aunt who she's named after."
"She'll figure it out Miss Patricia. She's got a big heart. It's impossible for that to go bad."
My mom finished washing a dish, dried it, and then set it down before replying, "I'm glad she's got a friend like you."
I tiptoed back to my room. I wanted to be angry but I wasn't.
I worried, because much like before, I realized I didn't feel a thing.
After my parents went to bed, I was left alone with Tori and reflection. We didn't talk about what had happened that day. We didn't need to talk about any of it. And despite how angry I was with my parents for some reason, despite the numbness that I was using to cover up my feelings about Simon, I couldn't help, in all the mess, but think about Caleb.
"Doesn't he have a girlfriend?" from Tori when I mentioned his name.
"I don't know. Does he?" It came out more sarcastic than sincere and shortly after the words had left my mouth I was happy that they had been said that way. That was payback for being friendly to my mother.
"I think he does." Tori ignored any bite if she had detected it.
We were sitting on my balcony, foregoing the chairs and instead letting our legs dangle in between the iron railing.
"So what? It's not like... a big deal or anything."
"Oh, but it is," Tori replied and she threw a kernel of popcorn at me.
We laughed and when that faded away we were comfortable in our own silence.
I thought back on my history with Caleb and his family. When I was little, the Youngs and Robinsons were almost inseparable: Friday night card games, barbecues, and family parties. We lived three blocks from each other, ran in the same circles, and to me it seemed like we had a special relationship... almost like family.
Then it stopped. My parents refused to talk about them, stopped me from asking about them. There were no more card games where Caleb and I could hide away by ourselves for hours. No more barbecues where we sat and ate together. No more parties.
My mother would talk badly about Mrs. Young. She would mumble things I didn't understand about Mr. Young. I heard it so much that I internalized her pain and soon began to resent Caleb. I hated him. But for what, I never was quite sure.
When school started again after my summer without him, we didn't speak unless we had to, and we definitely didn't suggest future meet-ups...
Early the next morning, when we were both drunk from being tired and could barely stumble to my bed, I hugged onto Tori.
"What if it does matter?" I asked and I could tell Tori was smiling.
"I knew it," she said matter- of- fact. Then we were quiet again: one unsure about how much to divulge, the other unsure about the advice to give.
Finally, unable to contain my emotions or the question that had been on my mind all day, I asked her if she thought I was a good person.
Tori snorted and then asked if I was serious.
Tori was quiet for a moment. "I think that you are one of the smartest, funniest, kind and generous people there are. Yes, I think you're a good person." She sighed. "But I don't think that you believe it yet."She pulled away from me and rolled to her side, getting comfortable. "Goodnight," she mumbled.
"Night," I replied.
Third grade. Fall. Billie had woken up that morning with vigor and a pep in her step. Her school was having their semester's end award ceremony and she was getting two.
She climbed onto one of the barstools in the kitchen. Her skirt had been pleated and her shirt pressed for the event, and when she ate her breakfast she made sure that none of her Lucky Charms dripped onto her clean clothes.
When they pulled up to the school Billie hesitated getting out of the car. "You're coming right?" she asked her mom.