“Oh Nate! What’re you doing here?” Aunt AM comes around Charlotte’s empty hospital bed. I hold out my books and give her a confused look. I’d been coming every night after football practice for the past week. What does she think I’m doing here?
“I’m here to study,” I say. “And hang out. Where is everyone?” I look around but don’t see Nick or Charlotte. Aunt AM places a hand on my elbow and starts moving out of the room, but I pull back. “Where’s everyone?” I repeat.
Aunt AM doesn’t give me a direct answer. Instead, she tightens the grip on my arm. For some reason she wants me to leave. I’m several inches taller than Aunt AM and probably a hundred pounds heavier. My superior height and weight make it impossible for most people to move me when I’m refusing to follow them. Aunt AM is no different. She turns to me and places her hands on her hips.
“You were so much easier to manage when you were a child, Nate.”
“But not as cute, right?” I wink at her because even though she looks a little exasperated with me now, I know she loves me.
“No, you were pretty darn cute as a baby.” Aunt AM sighs and then shoots a glance at the bathroom door that I just now notice is shut. A buzzing sound is coming from inside and then I hear voices. I can’t make out the words, but because I’ve grown up listening to these voices I know its Nick and Charlotte. I start for the door. There’s no way that they need privacy.
Aunt AM places her hand on my arm again and this time the tone in her voice, warning and wary, stops me. “Nate.”
“What’s up?” I don’t understand. I hear giggles which are from Charlotte and then a lower chuckle from Nick. My body is tensing up like it does before I’m about to kick the body bag in the gym. My breath is becoming more rapid and anger builds. Nick should not be in the bathroom with Charlotte. They should not be together, laughing behind closed doors. What is with the buzzing noise? The buzzing noise shuts off and I hear my name being repeated in low tones.
“Nate, Nathan, Nathan Jackson.” Aunt AM finally breaks through and I look down at her, wondering why she’s repeating my name so many times.
“Yeah?” But she doesn’t have my full attention because I have to know what’s going on in there. There’s a silence in the room and then I hear crying. It’s Charlotte. Shaking off Aunt AM’s hand, I take three strides across the room and have my hand on the bathroom door. I’m so close now that I can hear Nick comforting Charlotte.
“It’s fine, Charlotte. You look fine,” Nick says. Charlotte replies but I don’t understand her. Neither does Nick. “What?” he asks.
“It’s not fine.” Charlotte says more clearly. “Look at me. I look like a penis head.”
Nick burst out laughing. “Have you even seen a penis?
Aunt AM was tugging at my arm but stopped at Nick’s question. I guess we both want to hear the answer to this.
“Um duh, pictures. Remember when Francine forwarded the picture of her brother looking at himself in the mirror.” Silence reigned while we all contemplated this for a second.
“Yeah, that was unfortunate.” Nick snickered. “But you look nothing like Francine’s brother’s penis.”
“Only because he had hair around his dick and I don’t.” Charlotte said. Aunt AM let out a tiny moan of dismay beside me. I don’t know exactly how I feel that Charlotte had seen some guy’s penis but it isn’t pleasant.
Nick makes a gagging sound. “Can we never talk about Francine’s brother’s penis again? I’m going to need some brain bleach.”
“I can’t be seen like this,” Charlotte says unhappily. “I look hideous. I’m so glad we did this before Nate came.”
My back bristles. I don’t get why I was shut out of this. Charlotte had talked about shaving off her hair, but I thought it was just that, talk. I’d have done it with her. I wanted to do it. I was her rock, not Nick.
“Yeah, well, you know I’m standing behind you when he comes because he’s going to be pissed off you did this without talking to him first.”
“He’s not the boss of me,” declares Charlotte. “I’ve already got two parents. I don’t need a third one.” Is that what she thought? That I was trying to be her parent? Disheartened, I allowed Aunt AM to lead me away out into the hallway.
“Nate, honey,” she said, reaching up to brush my hair out of my face. Hair I shouldn’t have. Hair I should’ve shaved off with Charlotte so she could see we’d all be penis heads together if that was really what she looked like. “Charlotte is at a delicate stage. She’s fifteen. She’s starting to notice guys and have guys notice her.” This statement makes me ball my hands into fists which Aunt AM notices because she hurries on, “And not that she likes anyone but she’s very conscious of how she looks. Her emotions are all over the place because of the medications and the surgeries and just all the unknowns of the future.”
Unknowns? “What’re you saying?” I ask sharply. “She’s going to be okay, right?” I thought after they’d taken the tumor out of her head, it was all good from there. “The radiation is just precautionary, right?”
Aunt AM’s smile is a little watery. “We hope so, Nathan. We hope so.” Aunt AM pulls me in for a hug. “Be patient with her, will you?”
I nod. I can be patient. I can. Aunt AM releases me. A nurse catches her attention and Aunt Am follows her to the nurses’ station and I take the opportunity to head back to Charlotte’s room. The bathroom door is still closed. I decide to employ some of that patience and drop into the arm chair next to the empty hospital bed. My forbearance is rewarded when a second later, the bathroom door flies open and out walks Nick and Charlotte, looking like to freshly shorn peas. I cast Nick a dark look and he slides behind Charlotte, all six feet two of him.
“See, told ya he’d be pissed.”
“I’m not pissed.” Rising up, I position Charlotte directly in front of me and pretend to examine her carefully. I don’t really care what Charlotte looks like without hair. She could be bald for the rest of her life and she’d still be the prettiest girl around but I figure out pretty quick that she’s not going to believe that. I draw a finger down the middle of her face, from the top of her forehead to the tip of her chin. Then I bisect that imaginary vertical line with a horizontal one. I trace another line from her eyes to the sides of her mouth.
“What’d you learn in biology about symmetry, Charlotte,” I ask her. My voice is a little husky and her eyes widen. She’s trembling a bit under my hand.
“That nature loves symmetry.”
“Right.” She’s caught on quickly. “Your face is pretty damn symmetrical. You’re the type who’s gonna look good with long hair, short hair, and no hair.”
Her lips are shaking a bit and she presses them tight to hold back her tears but a couple slip out of her eyes anyway. I swipe them away with my thumbs but behind the surface sheen of tears, I see comprehension. She believes me. I give her a slow wink and that draws out a beautiful smile. At about the moment I’m going to draw her into my arms, Nick slaps me on the back, “Smooth, big brother. Very nice.”
Nick’s words make mine look like a joke and the look in Charlotte’s eyes turn from appreciation to bleakness like that. I reach over and cuff Nick harder than he expected.
“Ow goddammit, that hurt.” Nick rubs the back of his head but it’s too late. No amount of head slaps is going to bring confidence back into Charlotte’s eyes tonight.
I wait until Nick is done with the last rep of his leg extensions. “What was that all about with Charlotte today?”
Nick shoots me a look but says nothing. Ignoring me, he climbs off the machine and wipes it down before heading for the free weights. I follow. “If you’ve got something up your ass, just spit it out instead of stewing about it.”
“What do you care?” He picks up a twenty five pound barbell and starts doing bicep curls. When I pick up the thirty pound weights, Nick just rolls his eyes.
“Seriously? You’re giving me crap over the fact I can lift more than you?”
“Whatever,” he mumbles.
I set the barbells onto the rack and pull Nick on the shoulder so he will stop and talk to me. “Nick, what’s wrong?”
For a moment, I think he might shrug me off. Then he releases a huge sigh and places his weights next to mine. Leaning down, he picks up his discarded towel and walks over to the water cooler. I trail behind waiting impatiently for him to spill it.
Either intentionally or because he isn’t sure what he wants to say, Nick makes me wait until he’s drained two glasses of water. When he starts peeling a banana, I lunge for him. He starts laughing, the little fucker, and dances away. “I wondered how long you’d wait.”
“Fuck you.” I laugh. Nick and I can never stay mad at each other for long.
“Uh oh, you owe me five or I tell Mom.” Mom hates hearing us cuss and makes us put five dollars in a jar that we then donate to the Widows and Orphans Charity. Dad fills it up about once a month.
“Yeah? And how are you going to explain all the porn tumblrs you’ve been looking up on your computer? I screenshotted your history FYI.” I haven’t but Nick doesn’t know that. His quick temper flares again and I think he might try to force feed me the banana. “Just kidding.” I back away holding up my hands in surrender.
Nick’s face grows serious. “You know they are thinking of shipping Charlotte to Sweden, right?”
That stops me in my tracks. I am glad I am near a weight bench because the thought of Charlotte being moved out of the country leaves me more winded than my hour long workout. “When did you hear that?”
“Charlotte told me yesterday.”
“And you’re just tell me now?” I yell at Nick.
“Volume, please.” Nick jiggles his ear.
“Sorry.” I reply curtly but I’m not sorry at all. This was vital information. “Why didn’t you tell me yesterday.” What are Aunt AM and Uncle Bo thinking? Charlotte needs to be with me, us. Here where her family and friends are, not in some strange country with people who don’t know her.
“Where’d you go the night Charlotte had her tumor out?” Nick asks in an abrupt change of subject.
Caught off guard, I stammer, “Uh here. The gym.”
“Really? Cuz when we got the call that Charlotte was out of surgery, I came down here to the gym and then down to the common one on the sixth floor. You weren’t in either one.” Nick doesn’t look at me but I know what I’d see in his eyes. Disappointment. Suddenly I feel angry at Dad for ratting me out. Surging to my feet, I start for the door. Nick stops me. “I saw Madeline yesterday in the lobby. She asked about you. Where you’ve been. How come she hasn’t seen you. I told her you were at the hospital with Charlotte. She asked me if that was where you’d taken off in such a rush the other night.”
“Goddammit.” I lean my head against the glass door of the gym. “What’d you say to her?”
“I told her it wasn’t any of her goddamned business where you went and what you did.” Nick bites out.
“Did you really?” This time I do turn to look at him. Dad had always taught us to be respectful to women and I just couldn’t see Nick saying that. Even to Madeline.
Nick looks down at his feet and shakes his head. “No, but I wanted to. I just said that Charlotte was our number one priority now.”
“Did you say anything to Charlotte?” That was the most important question. I hold my breath as Nate answered.
The sheer relief at his response made me weak. “Thanks.” It’s inadequate but heartfelt. I push away from the door and gesture for Nick to follow me to the condo. He doesn’t get up and worry is all over his face. “I think Aunt AM knows, though, because after Charlotte told me I hung around outside the room when Mom came. She and Aunt AM were talking about this new clinic in Sweden and Aunt AM said it’d be good to get Charlotte away from us for a while.”
“What’d Mom say.”
“I couldn’t hear. They moved away from the door.”
“Fuck.” I curse and this time Nick doesn’t threaten to tell Mom. “So you think Aunt AM knows about Madeline and wants to move Charlotte away because of that?”
Nick spreads his hands. “Why else?”
I can think of a thousand reasons but instead of enumerating them, I run upstairs to Dad’s library and burst in. He’s on the phone and unhappy at the unannounced interruption. He gestures for me to sit down but then notices I’m in my workout clothes. Muting the phone, he barks at me. “Don’t sit on my leather chairs until you’ve showered.”
I stand because I’m not leaving to shower or eat or shit or anything until I find out what’s going on.
Dad doesn’t hurry through the phone call. Instead, he listens as the other person seems to talk without breaks, all the while eying me speculatively. I take the time, as he intends me to, to gather myself until I’m no longer ready burst out with some inappropriate profanity laced diatribe. I firm my lips and give him a nod that I’m ready. He nods back and quickly wraps up the call.
“Summarize the details and email them to me by tomorrow morning. I’ll give you an answer in forty eight hours.” He doesn’t wait for a response and hangs up. Leaning back in his chair, he folds his arms behind his head. “I didn’t say a word to your momma about your indiscretion with that girl downstairs if that’s what you’re wondering.”
My mouth falls open in surprise at his ability to precisely peg my issue. “I, ah,” I stammer and wish I had showered so I could sit down. “Why’re they talking about taking Charlotte away then?” I hadn’t realized how much that bothered me until I gave voice to it.
Dad squints at the ceiling, tipping farther back in his chair and then lets it come forward with a bang. “I’m not entirely sure, son, but it isn’t that. Frankly, I think AnnMarie would be grateful your attentions are fixed on someone other than Charlotte. It’s been a contentious year for the two of you.”
I flush. Every since Charlotte turned fifteen, everyone seemed to start noticing her. And by everyone, I mean other guys. She doesn’t seem to care that she gets stared at constantly. When I suggested that maybe she should stop wearing yoga pants outside of the actual yoga studio, she didn’t talk to me for a week. “She’s hormonal,” I mutter finally.
At this Dad shouts with laughter. “She’s hormonal.” He pushes away from his desk and stands. Walking toward the door, he gestures for me to follow. “Son, you’ve got so many suppressed hormones, they are screwing with your head.”
I follow him into the kitchen where he pulls out the makings for sandwiches. Silently we make ourselves one and Dad pours me a tall glass of milk. I don’t remember the last time we’ve had time, just the two of us. Some of the stress of the past couple of weeks just drains away as we sit down and talk about the Bears chances to win the SuperBowl this year — not good — and the Cubs chances of winning the pennant next year — even worse.
“How’s practice going?” He asks, eating half his sandwich in one bite.
I shrug. “I don’t love it. I know I should but I’m bored half the time. It was more fun when I could play both offense and defense.” North Prep’s football team is mediocre at best and during my sophomore year, I got to play the tight end position and defensive back. My junior year, however, I’m playing solely the tight end position and because the quarterback sucks, I rarely get the ball thrown to me and when it does come my way, it’s either too long or too short.
“Team sports is a good experience for you, Nate,” Dad says. “Getting along with others is a chore but a necessary one. You can at least use the opportunity to understand the different dynamics of your teammates and how each one is motivated. Later on that skill will come in handy.”
After we polish off the sandwiches and milk, I help Dad clean up the kitchen. I’m not ready for our time to come to an end so I linger, spending more time than necessary cleaning off the center island.
“You think Charlotte is going to be okay?” That’s really the only question I need answered.
“Yeah, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy.”
“Because of hormones,” I joke.
Dad doesn’t laugh, though. The side of his mouth quirks up in a sad half smile. “It’s going to be everything and I’m worried about you, hoss.”
“How so?” I don’t like this somber tone from him. Maybe chat time should be over. I throw the cloth I was using to clean the counter into the sink showing that I’m ready to be done.
“Charlotte is going to go through several months of radiation. Maybe a year. She’s going to be sick for a long time — ”
“And I’m going to take care of her,” I interrupt. Holding up my hand to forestall any other lectures, I tell Dad, “I got this.”
Dad just shakes head. “I love Charlotte like she’s my own and I’m gut sick about her illness, just like you. But she’s got her family to take care of her. You and Nick need to be focused on finishing school, enjoying yourself and then planning for college.”
“Sounds like you are all for Charlotte being moved away.” I scowl at him.
“No, but I can tell you that Charlotte is going to want to be with someone who sees more than someone to be taken care of. Around here, there’s going to be a lot of sympathy and a lot of people trying to do stuff for her.” Dad runs a hand over the top of his head and frowns. “Maybe Bo and AnnMarie are right in thinking Charlotte’d be better off where everyone doesn’t know her.”
I gape at him. “I think you’re all high then because Charlotte needs us.”
I’m grateful that the school keeps the bathrooms so clean because I’ve spent far too much time in them during the last month I’ve been back. After a month in the hospital and then a month at home, they allowed me to come back to school so long as I could hold up. Not wanting to be at home for another day, I’ve been lying to my parents for the first time. If they knew I was in the bathroom sick every day, I’d be pulled out of school in a heartbeat.
I pull out the water bottle from my backpack and swish out my mouth. Reaching up, I close the lid of the toilet seat and climb on top of it. The cool metal of the bathroom stall is relieving. Just one more minute, I tell myself, and then I’ll go back to class.
Everyone has been so helpful since I’ve been back, too helpful. I’ve gone from Charlotte Randolph to the sickgirl. Someone is always around to carry my books and walk me from room to room. Nate is always holding my elbow as if he thinks I’ll fall if he lets go. My tongue is sore from biting back my frustration. I’m trying not to be ungrateful, but I’d like to just be Charlotte Randolph again. Freshman, gymnast, student.
But every time I try to be normal, something happens to remind me that it’s all different. I have a hard time concentrating in class. Reading at night was once my favorite pastimes and now it is a chore. I’m behind everyone else and I’ve completely forgotten some basic principles of algebra and geometry. But none of the teachers complain about my lack of progress. Instead, I get smiles of encouragement for just signing my name on the top of a pop quiz or a homework assignment.
It’s early yet, I know this, but I’m afraid if I don’t show regular progress that I’ll be shipped out away from my friends, away from Nate and Nick. I can’t have that happen so I’m not telling anyone that I’m sick on a constant basis, that I can’t understand even the most basic principles during class, and that I feel like I’m only capable of doing fourth grade work at the moment.
I squeeze my eyes tight and concentrate on breathing. I’m not going to cry, I chant silently. I’m not going to cry.
The bathroom door slams open and the chatter of several girls tells me I am not alone. I start to stand but the vomiting and the lack of nutrition makes me feel lightheaded so I sit back down.
“You hosting the Halloween party this year, Claud?”
“Of course, what’s your costume?”
“Pepper Potts and Ryan is going as Iron Man.”
The names give me the clues to the group outside. It is Claudia Amsden, student body vice president and co chair of the homecoming committee. Her dad is a plastic surgeon. The girl going as Pepper Potts would be Nina Franchetti. The Franchettis own a number of restaurants in the city. Claudia has a thing for Nate but I don’t think that he’s given her a second thought. Not because Claudia isn’t gorgeous, but because she’s the same age as Nate and for some reason he’s never dated anyone at school, preferring older girls who go to other schools. He’s probably sleeping with some college student right now. The idea makes my sore stomach clench.
“Have you invited Charlotte Randolph yet?” asked Nina.
Nothing good comes from eavesdropping so I slowly rise to make it known I’m inside but before I can get the door open, I hear Claudia respond. “But of course. How else are we getting the Jacksons to come? The problem is getting them to stay because Charlotte’s probably too sick to stay long.”
I sit back down. She’s not wrong. I doubt I could last for more than an hour at Claudia’s party or at anyone’s party. And if I have radiation that day, I’ll count it as a success that I can walk from the treatment room to the car let alone go to any event.
“I don’t really understand why Nate and Nick won’t go to parties just because Charlotte can’t. Do you think she threw a tantrum and they feel sorry for her?” Nina asked.
Ugh. I hate that anyone feels sorry for me.
“Who knows,” Claudia responds. “It’s annoying but what can you do? They’re not going to do anything without her.”
I don’t want to hear anything more. Opening the door, I smile at their shocked expressions. “I don’t tell Nick or Nate what to do. They have minds of their own.”
Claudia purses her lips, unfazed by appearance. Maybe she knew I was there. “Maybe so, but they are obviously not doing anything without you. At least when it comes to extracurricular activities.”
“Like you said, that’s annoying.” I steady myself against the door jam and walk slowly toward the exit. I was going to have to talk to those boys. The idea that they were not having fun because of me angered me. I didn’t need anyone’s pity.