When I was in high school we finally got high-speed internet. I also got my own computer and one of the rooms upstairs. This was before I texted or everyone had a cell phone. So to talk without talking, you got on the internet and used a messaging service. I’d stay up late into the night talking to friends on MSN messenger.
“Can you come over?”
It wasn’t an uncommon question to receive. I’d knitted myself into a group of heartbroken and struggling teenagers. Most with “do whatever you want” parents and many without cars. Even though I lived at least twenty minutes from every one of them, it was rare that I wouldn’t drop everything and come to your doorstep. You just had to ask. Just ask.
Common enough that even at 1 AM I was still clothed, including shoes. My coat hanging on the back of my chair, my purse stocked with cigarettes and within easy reach.
“Of course. On my way. See you in half an hour.”
I crept down the stairs and kneeled next to my mom’s side of my parent’s bed, pushing soft on her shoulder. “Mom. Mom. I’m going to go into town. I’ll be back later.”
Still asleep, she’d answer me with a, “Okay. Be safe. I love you.”
“Love you, too.” I leaned in, kissed her temple, and headed out the door into the empty night. One of the joys of living in a small town was the lack of light pollution. The nights are always dark and you rarely have to share them.
Half an hour later I was knocking on Sheldon’s door. A room straight off the front patio; you could enter it without walking through the house or putting down your cigarette. He joined me outside, handing over a Busch Light and asking for a smoke. We settled into the chairs arranged around the glass-top table that was covered in ashtrays and beer cans.
He didn’t say much. Pupils like pin-pricks, like far-off blackbirds soaring deep into the sky of his eyes. He flopped his head back and forth like a rag doll. Sometimes it’s not that you want company, but that you know it’s not safe to be alone.
With our smokes done, we headed into his room. He mumbled he wanted to play me something, turning his back to me and sifting through the music on his computer. His room was always a mess, so at first I didn’t notice what he’d done. A painter, among many things, he’d been experimenting with acrylics on panes of glass. He’d paint them individually, then layer them together two or three deep. Gorgeous from both sides and like nothing any of us had ever seen. Stunning.
Now they were all in pieces. Smashed to bits among his belongings. Paint and shattered glass on the floor. On the bed. Across his desk. Settling into the creases of the dirty clothes piled up in every corner.
“What the fuck did you do, dude?”
“It’s been a bad night.”
I sat down on the edge of his bed, pieces of it digging into my palms. “I can help you clean this up tomorrow. I’ll bring my dad’s Shop-Vac® in.”
“Sure. Listen to this.”
He put on the new Alias album he’d been listening to and laid down on the bed. Shards of glass sliding in toward him as his weight depressed the mattress. Cutting into this elbows, his triceps, sticking to his clothes, and creeping down the collar of his shirt.
At first I thought I’d try to clear off the bed, but it so insignificant. When your feet are soaking wet you don’t bother avoiding puddles. We were already covered in it and what did it matter anyway? Tiny glass slices mean nothing in comparison to everything we were living with.
I crawled up the side of the mattress and laid my head on the pillow next to his. Alias playing loud and both of us bleeding into the mattress. We fell asleep with the light on.
The next day I drove home, picked up my dad’s vacuum like I said I would, and drove back to Sheldon’s. While he sat on the patio and smoked my cigarettes I cleaned his room. It was the one thing I knew I could fix for him. Something tangible I could protect him from.
After I loaded the vacuum into the back of my Corolla I sat down at the table with him. Both of us still picking pieces of glass out of the creases in our fingers, out of the cuffs of our jeans. He pushed his chair back, the harsh squeal of metal against concrete. Stood up and went into his room.
A few minutes later he came back with a stack of paper in huge brown portfolio. “This is every piece of art I’ve made since… Since high school. Well, you know, that I have still. I need you to hold on to it for me.” He put it into the trunk of my car and sat back down.
When I got back home I asked my mom to stash the portfolio somewhere, put my dad’s Shop-Vac® back into the garage, and took a shower. Clean and dressed in fresh clothes, I sat down at the table in our kitchen.
My mom came in through the back door and caught me staring blankly out the window. Motionless. She asked the set of questions she always felt comfortable asking. “Are you hungry? Can I make something for you?”
“Yeah, that’d be great. Do we have any lasagna left?”
“If you wanna reheat some of that, that’d be awesome. Thanks, mom.”
She rustled through the fridge and pulled out a selection of food to go along with the lasagna, of course. Her ability to create a feast in minutes shining. Setting the plate in front of me she said, “You sure do give a lot to your friends, munchkin. Make sure you keep some for yourself.”
I looked over at her and smiled. “Yeah, I know. I do. I will.” The words came out confident, but then I looked down at my scabbed hands as I picked up my fork. My teeth clenched. The truth is, if you want to keep something you care about safe, you give it to someone else.