A Hundred and Sixty-Nine Paperclips
But Daddy, I can’t tell if that’s really a star or an airplane.
Honey, it doesn’t matter what it is; you can still make your wish.
He’s right. They’re both in the sky—that’s all you need.
Times like those were proof that my parents didn’t always misunderstand me. They didn’t always do everything wrong. I guess maybe that means I don’t think anything is their fault. Maybe nothing is.
Except for right now, sitting on the other side of Mr. Durk’s desk and straining to keep my Lifesaver under my tongue. This is their fault. I don’t want to be here. I am missing the first ten minutes of lunch.
Mr. Durk is the band teacher. He’s bald. He said he would be out for just a second to get a drink from the fountain; it can’t be the one by the boy’s bathroom because that one doesn’t work and the one by the music room makes a groaning sound so it must be that he’ll have gone to the one by the office. It’s going to take him a couple minutes.
I don’t know much of anything about him. Only that he is the band teacher, is bald, and according to everyone I’ve heard that knows him, picks his nose. That’s probably not true. Even if it is, he hasn’t been fired yet and surely the school would fire someone that picks their nose.
So if he hasn’t been fired, he must not be that bad. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to be in band. My parents called him even though I begged them not to and now I have to be in stupid band and I don’t want anything to do with band or anything to do with something that makes me have to miss the first ten minutes of lunch.
I can hear him coming back. I am glad this chair is not on wheels and that he knows my name is Benni and I won’t have to correct him. He has the window shut so I can’t smell the grass. I put one hand in my pocket and rub my fingers around a paperclip.
Mr. Durk comes back into his room and sits in his chair. His glasses look foggy but his smile is friendly. He picks up a pen. “So, Benni,” he says, “I hear you want to join band.”
No. My parents want me to join band. I do not. I would prefer to remain a non-band individual for the rest of my life.
“Yes,” I say. I swallow the last of the Lifesaver. I wish I had another; a green one. I smile back at Mr. Durk since he is clearly thrilled to know of my apparent (though outwardly false) band-interest.
“Great,” he says. “We’d love to have you. Have you ever played an instrument before?”
“Ah, well, no matter; we’ll find something for you.” He picks a box up from behind his chair and puts it between us on his desk. He really needs to clean his desk. He opens the box and takes pieces of instruments out.
He hands me one, a gold metal tube with a curved opening at one end and tells me to try it. I wonder how many people have had their mouths on this same thing. I have no idea what to do with it. I don’t even know what instrument this goes to.
I put the curved mouthpiece up to my lips and press them together and blow. It makes a sound. I can tell it’s not the right sound because Mr. Durk instantly clamps his eyes shut. He takes it back.
“No to trumpet,” he says. He hands me another.
This is the worst day I will have this week. I can’t believe I willingly walked here and willingly put a mouthpiece up to my face to make a dying elephant sound in front of this bald teacher who probably does pick his nose and willingly am missing the first ten minutes of lunch.
I can still taste the Lifesaver. I put my other hand in my free pocket to keep my fingers still. It doesn’t work. I pick up the new mouthpiece—a bright silver section of a flute.
I wish I had nothing to do with my parents right now. I put the flute up to my chin and try to make my lips point downward in that way flute players do and blow softly. It doesn’t really sound like anything. Mr. Durk tells me to try again.
I try again. It makes a brief whistle. There are four more minutes left of our ten minute appointment. I don’t think Mr. Durk is keeping track.
~ ~ ~
Carol Nielsen is knee-deep in the plants of the side yard when she hears her husband’s car. He shuts it off, gets out, and comes over behind her. Carol continues to pull out weeds from between the pea plants and lettuce.
“Hey there,” Evan says. He bends down to kiss her cheek and then leans against the house.
“Uneventful. The girls home?”
“Benni. Ava’s at field hockey.” Carol claps her gloved hands together to shake off some extra dirt.
“Ah. Well anyway,” he says, “I can do dinner tonight. Stopped for some fresh ingredients on the way home.”
He holds out a container with a couple dozen black crickets. They’re climbing and jumping over each other’s glossy bodies.
Carol laughs. “No thanks,” she says. “More for you.”
The crickets are for their daughter Benni’s bearded dragon. Evan was the soft-hearted parent that gave in to the girls’ pleas for a pet and spent hours of research finding one that was suitable for children and without fur, fluff, or feathers since all three caused severe family allergies.
The day he came home with the lizard-like substitution for the animated dogs and cats and birds of other families five years ago, Ava complained because it didn’t change colors like she thought it should. It didn’t matter that the Pogona vitticeps was not supposed to be able to change color—the then seven-year-old was unimpressed.
It was Benni who kept returning to the lizard’s tank and picking it up to hold it and let it explore each day. She was nine then, and had never felt an attachment to an animal outside of the occasional butterfly or grasshopper she would find outside while she was laying in the grass. She liked the new feeling of having an animal belong to her.
Well, Ben, you think you’re gonna name him someday?
Yes, Dad. I did already. I told Mom.
That’s great. What is it?
Interesting choice. Why?
Because Daddy, it’s something that he can blend in with without trying.
Evan and Carol Nielsen appreciated the beauty of their daughter’s mind and agreed to call the lizard by its new proper name. Soon after, its enclosure was transported to Benni’s bedroom. She still holds Potato every day.
Evan looks at the new crickets through the plastic and turns to take them in the garage where they are kept until Benni uses them for feeding. They are the most common thing she gives Potato, but from time to time she’ll give him a treat in the form of small pieces of fruit and vegetables. She’s decided his favorite is grapes. Carol has some over-ripened pea pods that she’ll send in from the garden.
“Fall is coming,” Evan says. He looks at the trees, the sky.
“It sure is. Garden’s about done.”
“Mhm. You headed in soon, Babe?”
“Yes,” Carol says. “Oh, could you send Benni out when you go in?” she asks.
~ ~ ~
Mom’s pants are filthy. She doesn’t hear me behind her yet; she’s half under a bush. I know what she wants and I really don’t want to talk about it and I want to ask her something else. I sit down on the grass; say hello.
“Oh, hello,” she says. She reaches for a pile of plants beside her and hands them to me. “Pea pods,” she tells me. “We won’t eat them.”
My hands touch her gloves as she gives the pods to me and I set them in my lap; Potato will like them. He is almost the length of my whole arm now, if you count his tail. I pick at the grass with both hands and let myself smell it. I am not looking forward to snow this winter.
“Why didn’t you bring him out today, let him have some fresh air maybe?”
No. It’s windy. He doesn’t like wind and he’s under his log. I want to ask you something.
“It’s a little too cold out, I guess,” I tell her. I want to ask you something. It’s important. She looks frustrated with the garden but she turns to smile at me.
“That appointment with the band professor was today, wasn’t it?” she asks. “How did it go? Are you in?”
It was awful and I don’t want to be in band and it was supposed to take ten minutes but it took thirteen. He wants me to try the flute. You have to sign a paper. Once you sign it I can start next week; please don’t sign it.
“Uh, yes; it went fine.” I take the pea pods off my lap and turn my body so I’m on my stomach and my face is closer to the grass. “You have to sign a paper.” Don’t sign it.
“That’s great!” She wipes her forehead with the clean side of her right glove. “See, this was a good idea, Benni. This is going to be such a good experience for you.” She raises herself onto one knee for balance.
Except no—no this wasn’t a good idea. I need to ask. Ask now. Say it say it say it say it.
She doesn’t stop touching the garden, doesn’t stop moving. “Yes?” She wants me to be in band. She’s going to sign the permission paper the second she gets hold of it.
“I think something’s wrong with me.” Say something, Mom; faster. Don’t sign the band paper. Say anything.
“Oh, what’s wrong? Does something hurt?” She drops her garden shovel and turns to me. She takes her gloves off and reaches for my hands. She’s confused.
“No, Mom. Nothing hurts.” It’s everything, but it’s not about hurting. I can’t be in band; especially not a flute player.
“What is it then?” She’s upset. Her eyes show it the most. Looking me up and down to try and see.
I don’t know how to make you understand. I let all the grass fall out of my fingers and sit up. I reach for the paperclip in my left pocket; thank God it’s there. I have to tell you this because I can’t play the flute.
“I, um,” I pick more grass off the ground, “I think I worry too much.”
She smiles. “Oh, Benni, everyone worries about things.” She’s not upset anymore. “Are you worried about joining band?”
Yes but it’s everything else, too. I don’t know what to do. I put my hands under my thighs and press them into the grass. I need your help.
“It’s not just band, Mom,” I tell her. “And it’s not just worrying.” My legs can’t hold my hands down tight enough so I pull them back out and bend the paperclip in and out over my lap. It breaks, but I keep holding it anyway.
“Benni, I don’t understand.” She blinks twice. “What are you saying?”
That something is wrong with me. That I don’t want to be in band because there are too many people and you have to have lessons and the teacher is bald and probably picks his nose and will have to show me everything and the band shirts have your last name on the front and sometimes you have to perform in front of an audience and I’ll get everything wrong all at once. It’s way too windy out for Potato so I didn’t want him outside today and I want to hold him and I want to bring him one of these pea pods to eat. I don’t know what to do when I feel like this and I never stop thinking and sometimes I just want to turn my whole self off.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Just that…” I sit on my hands again. I move my tongue side to side inside my mouth so fast that I can hear it; some words fight their way out underneath it. “Well, you know,” I start, “there’s this one kid in my science class that’s allowed to listen to his iPod all the time and gets to chew gum and someone said it’s because he has an anxiety disorder, and did you know that if—”
“Oh, Benni,” Mom says, reaching out for my arms, “there’s nothing wrong with you.” She lets go and settles herself in a sitting position close enough that our knees are touching. “You need to relax, honey. There’s nothing to worry about being in band.”
“But, Mom, it’s not—”
“Benni, listen to me. You don’t have anxiety.” She crosses her arms and laughs. “You’re fourteen years old, sweetie; you’re perfect.”
Ava Nielsen has been enlisted, as she is every night, to place silverware on the table for dinner and summon the rest of the house. She quickly puts a fork and knife to the side of the five plates that are already there.
The girl is twelve, an infamous age of being stuck between a child and a teenager, and expresses this burden as frequently as she can. Her sister is only two years older than her, but it always feels like an untouchable state of life that Ava can never catch up to.
Ava likes her sister just fine, but sometimes acts in passive aggressive revenge because of those two years where she got a head start and Ava didn’t. Ava will do only small, small things. Sometimes she will move Benni’s shoes from where she left them, go in her room to flip a pillow over, switch their toothbrush places. Small, small things like that drive Benni crazy.
Every time she interacts with her sister, Ava wishes she was fourteen, too. Then Benni would spend more time with her. Talk to her.
“Dinner, Dad,” Ava says as she walks by where Evan’s sitting in the living room with his laptop open.
“You went in my room today, didn’t you?”
“Ava. I can tell.”
“I said I didn’t.”
“You held Potato. I can tell he’s been picked up.”
“Whatever. Leave me alone, Benni.”
It’s actually Ava’s doing that her sister’s name is what it is. Her name is in fact Bethany, but when Ava was too little, she couldn’t say it. She was always following Benni around, wanting to do everything she could do. “Benni” was Ava’s first word. Her parents said they just gave up correcting her one day and Benni stuck. No one in the family has questioned it or called her Bethany since.
Benni thinks of herself only as Benni. When someone calls her Bethany, a teacher or stranger reading her name from a paper perhaps, she becomes very unsettled. If someone calls her Bethany, she knows they don’t know her.
Ava and Benni spend some time together, but they are not inseparable siblings. They’ll go to each other for insignificant things now and then. Borrowing hair ties, inquiries as to where personal objects are, frustrated complaints about their parents.
She’s at the top of the stairs now and Ava turns towards Benni’s room. She can hear the high-pitched whistle of the flute as Benni practices scales. It has been almost two weeks since Benni got to join band. Ava doesn’t understand why she has to play the same song over and over for hours at a time. She comes to her room and stands in the open doorway.
“Hi,” she says.
Benni doesn’t look up from her music; she didn’t hear.
“Benni?” Ava knocks on the door and walks in closer.
“Mom says dinner’s in five minutes.” Ava walks to the fifty gallon aquarium and looks inside. “Where is he?”
Her sister is taking the flute apart so it fits in the case. Ava thinks it’s weird that something comes in a box it doesn’t fit in without being broken in pieces first.
“Windowsill,” Benni says. She points to the window behind her bed that has a piece of old carpet on it specifically for the lizard. “Dad says he sits there because it’s warm, but he’s really watching the birds or moving leaves or whatever.”
“How do you know?” Ava asks. She goes closer but she doesn’t touch. “Hi, Potato.”
“Because I do,” Benni says. She puts the last piece of the flute in the case. “I’ll be down in a minute.” She folds the case, latches it, and sets it against her music stand. She moves towards the door as Ava walks out and then shuts it, staying inside.
Ava walks down the hallway and stops at the second door on the right. She knocks, so softly that almost no one should be able to hear the sound at all.
The voice belongs to Julia Whitley.
Ava wonders why Julia always answers her back with a question—she should know exactly what it is that Ava wants. She knocks on her door to tell her the same thing every night and it is almost always their only verbal exchange.
Ava goes back downstairs.
Julia Whitley has lived with the Nielsen’s for so long that Ava doesn’t really remember when she first started. She doesn’t remember Julia when she was in the hospital for mononucleosis when she was four but she does by the time her dad brought Potato home when Ava was seven. It must have been sometime in there that the woman moved in.
Ava and Benni don’t know very much about Julia. She keeps her distance from the girls, or anyone really. In order to know anything about Julia Whitley, they have relied on overheard conversations or instructions from their mother to give Julia plenty of space. They know seven things about her.
One: she is their mother’s best friend from college. Two: she never complains about the vegetable at dinner, no matter what. Three: her family members are all dead or very far away. Four: she has a very important job that she does from her computer and it takes her many, many hours to do her work each day. Five: she always looks like somebody just told her bad news that she can’t figure out or like she wants to tell everyone something really important but can’t. Six: she was going to have a baby once but didn’t so it is hard for her that her best friend has children. Seven: her house burned down and she asked their mother for grocery money that she would pay back but Carol Nielsen insisted that she move in with them.
Four-and-a-half of those seven things are true.
The four Nielsens and one Whitley are all at the table, together but separately—the conversations are not very animated. They have just started dinner, but Ava knows it will be Benni who gets up first. Since she started band, she always has an excuse to leave. Dylan Riggs will be over to practice after dinner so tonight she uses that. It will be her father next, who will want to watch the news. Ava and her mother will talk, the two have a very close relationship, and then her mother will finally resign to another room as well.
It will be Ava Nielsen and Julia Whitley left, alone. There won’t be much talking, or any at all. It is like this every night. When Ava gets up, Julia will whisper to herself that she needs to get back to work.
Ava has always been curious as to what Julia’s job is, or what she does all day while everyone is gone. She only sees her twice a day, rarely three times. The one or maybe two times is coming in or out of the bathroom and then of course dinner. Sometimes when she knocks on Julia’s door, there will be no answer. On those nights, Ava is left at the table alone without Julia’s polite company.
Carol Nielsen works as a secretary in a fancy office in the court district that Ava has been to before. She is needed only very early in the morning, and Ava knows that she gets home before lunch. She suspects that must be when her mother and Julia Whitley talk. She knows that Julia goes with her mother to the grocery store because sometimes they don’t get home until after Ava is already there.
Julia Whitley knows how to laugh and smile (Ava has witnessed both) but she is usually in her room working or, Ava guesses, sleeping. She does not come with the family if they go out on the weekends or to Ava’s junior field hockey matches. Ava asked Benni what she thought about Julia once and she found that she agreed.
Julia Whitley is a very strange lady.
~ ~ ~
Since he is also in band, my parents are letting my friend Dylan come over after dinner twice a week so we can practice. It doesn’t matter if they bribe me with a possible social life, I still hate band and that they made me do it in the first place. Dylan plays the trumpet; I guess his lips worked out on the curvy mouthpiece better than mine did. I have known Dylan since he moved here in middle school.
I am cleaning Potato’s cage when he comes in the house. He doesn’t come upstairs right away. I soon hear my sister chatting as they both come up the stairs. Don’t come in here, Ava.
“Dylan’s here,” she says. “He was hungry so I gave him a pudding cup.” She yawns. “See you later, then.”
Hi, Dylan. “You’re always hungry,” I tell him. I motion him to the chair by my closet and go across the hall to take one from my parent’s desk in their room; Ava leaves. I don’t think I’d ever confide in Dylan my biggest secrets, but he is a good friend.
“Well,” he says, “let me just tell you—” he pauses to put two spoonfuls of pudding into his mouth. He licks the spoon more than necessary. “I just had the worst experience. And I’ve decided there is no greater form of human suffering than finding out a cookie you thought had chocolate chips really had raisins.”
He sees my smile and I reach into my pocket to feel for the paperclip—I’ve broken three today so it’s the only one I have left. I get my flute back out and watch as Dylan gets his trumpet. All he has to do is put the mouthpiece in and twist it on tight while I have to do all this fidgeting and twisting and turning to get my stupid flute to look like a flute. What if I have to do this at the beginning of the concert?
“Dylan?” I’m not as afraid to ask Dylan questions as other people. There’s an honestly to him that I can’t explain. It’s as if he doesn’t think about anything he does or says, he just does or says it. I don’t know if I can survive band, but at least he’ll be there.
How do you get on the stage? What do all those tubes on your trumpet actually do? Maybe I should put Potato somewhere else for a while; trumpets are louder than flutes. I want to ask you everything.
“Yeah?” He has some pudding on his face and I can practically smell the chocolate sitting two feet away from away him. You really are obnoxious sometimes. But you’ve done this before, and I haven’t.
“What is the concert like?” I let go of the paperclip and let it sit at the bottom of my pocket. I wish I didn’t have to do this. I need to put Potato back in his cage and give him a cricket.
“What do you mean?” he asks. “We dress up in the itchy band pants and play music and people clap and it’s over.” He sets his music up on the stand. Dylan always seems like he doesn’t worry about anything.
“Right,” I say. “I was just wondering. Never been to one.” I don’t think I can ever play the flute; Flutes sit in the front row.
“Let’s do this, then,” he says. He plays up and down a half-scale. I can’t tell which one. On the flute, I have them all memorized now; I practice them a hundred times each to make sure I won’t mess up.
I know the flutes will have to sit in the front row. They do in every band ever, I’m pretty sure. I can’t do that. I can’t play while people are watching me from right there.
Potato is still over on the windowsill; I should close it in case it gets too cold for him but I like being able to smell the grass from outside. He didn’t feel too cold when I held him a while ago. I play more band music with Dylan; the concert is in the beginning of December so it’s mainly holiday tunes that we’re learning. Dylan is a good friend but he didn’t make me feel any better about the concert; it’s still going to be a disaster.
I can’t sit in the front row. The band uniform pants don’t bother me so much, actually. It’s the shirt that makes me feel nauseous. The school allows the band enough money to get each member a personalized shirt.
Dylan is not very good at playing the trumpet but he doesn’t seem to mind. I remember meeting him in middle school when we both sat out during a gymnastics day in our physical education class. I was sitting out because I didn’t want to do gymnastics in front of all the other girls so I faked being dizzy. He had a sprained wrist.
Dylan is so weird and always hungry and not very good at playing the trumpet but I can tell he is a good friend. He doesn’t worry about everything. He never seems annoyed. He likes Potato.
The band shirts are blue. There are five buttons; I wish there were only four. The shirts have your last name stitched on them. I never wear clothes with words—I don’t like to be read.
~ ~ ~
Carol Nielsen is knitting in her bedroom when Evan comes back from dropping Dylan off at his own home. She can’t stand to have her hands sitting still; she’s always working on something.
“Dylan home?” she asks her husband.
“Yes,” he says. “Got talking to his old man.” He sits on the bed next to her. He takes off his shoes.
Carol unravels a few stitches that weren’t tight enough to do them again. “They sounded fine tonight, didn’t you think?”
“Of course,” Evan says. “Though the boy’s trumpet is a little loud; glad Benni went with a quieter one.”
Carol nods and puts her yarn in her lap. “Do you think she likes it?”
“What? Playing an instrument? I think so.”
Carol is worried that they put too much pressure on their daughter and required her to engage in an after-school activity. She had just started high school and it seemed necessary that she get involved with something. Benni hadn’t been interested in looking into all the wonderful opportunities so Carol and Evan decided they’d help her get started.
“Why, did she say something?” Evan asks.
“Not exactly.” Carol starts knitting again. It is a hat for Ava, she lost hers from the last season and she’ll need another before too long.
Some people take medicine for stuff like this, Mom. They’re really sick.
No, honey. There is no such thing as being sick that way. Medicine is for physical pain. You’re just overthinking Benni. You’re making the choice to overreact and all you need to do is stop worrying. It will go away.
But, Mom, it doesn’t go away; I can’t…I can’t fix it.
Benni, you’re being ridiculous now. There’s nothing to fix. There’s nothing to worry about. Just stop talking about it—you’re completely fine.
Evan Nielsen leans back against the headboard and stretches his legs out on the bed. “She must enjoy it a little,” Evan says, “she’s always practicing.” He turns the television on and looks through channels. He never watches the same one longer than a few minutes; he can’t stand commercials. When the ads come on, he finds a different channel and will stay on that one. It drives Carol crazy because he never goes back to the first channel to finish a show or game or whatever—he just moves on.
Carol sighs. “You’re right,” she says. She puts the unfinished hat and cream colored yarn on the side table. “I’m going to go check on the girls.”
Carol doesn’t actually go near her daughters’ rooms, but instead to the second door on the right. She knocks twice with just one knuckle.
Carol does not often go into Julia Whitley’s room. It always takes her by surprise to see a room that used to be filled with exercise equipment and extra boxes full of a person’s entire life. Julia did not come into their home with many possessions. She has never been a disturbance in the household, and she always insists on paying Carol and Evan more rent than they ask for each month.
Knocking on Julia’s door like this reminds Carol so much of college. They would always end up in each other’s room. They would talk for hours, about everything. Now it seems as though they don’t have time to talk anymore—they are both so busy. Julia with her work and Carol with her life and always moving hands.
Julia Whitley is propped up on her bed, much like Carol herself was knitting a few minutes ago. Her computer is on her lap but she doesn’t appear to be working. She shuts it and offers Carol a seat next to her.
And then, Julia does what Carol needs her to do. She lets her talk about what’s bothering her and doesn’t tell her that she’s wrong, that she doesn’t understand her daughter at all. She doesn’t tell her what she’s really doing to Benni and that she can tell from just seeing her once a night at dinner that it’s worse than anyone knows. She doesn’t even imagine reminding Carol of her younger self and how similar she was. How much Benni is like them both. Julia Whitley lets Carol do the talking and does what best friends do.
“Of course you did the right thing.”
Ten hours and fifty-four minutes. The band concert will start. I will be wearing the awful blue shirt with my last name on it. Front row, three from stage right.
I can’t sit in the fourth chair because the order is alphabetical. I can’t sit in the fourth chair. I can’t have a paperclip in my pocket because the pants don’t have pockets. The third chair isn’t the right spot.
Seven hours and fifty-one minutes. Someone knocks on my door. Ava and I will catch the bus in an hour and a half so she is awake but she shouldn’t need me for anything. I don’t want to talk to anyone.
“Come in,” I say. I look to Potato’s tank. He’s under the lamp getting warm still so I won’t feed him yet. I’ll leave him alone; sometimes things just want to be left alone.
It’s not Ava. Or Dad or Mom. Why are you here? It’s Julia.
She looks like she wants to throw up. I could throw up. She’s wearing a hooded sweatshirt with black leggings and her hair isn’t tied back like it normally is; she has the same pair of thick sunglasses on top of her head that she always does even though it’s only 7 AM and I doubt she’s going outside. She never looks at me directly and she isn’t right now, either.
“Hi,” she says. She’s still standing by the door. She doesn’t want to come in but for some reason she’s asking me to come in with her eyes. I don’t understand why you’re here.
“Hi.” Do you want to come in? “You can come in if you want.” What’s wrong?
I am sitting on the floor going through my backpack to make sure everything is still in the right place. Julia is uncomfortable in here and I’m already upset about whatever it is that she wants; I put my red folder inside my backpack and stop moving my hands to look at her. It’s okay if you sit on the chair. I’ve never seen your hair down before; it looks nice.
“You can sit.” I point to the wooden chair next to my dresser. I’m so glad I moved the pair of pants I had draped over the back of it last night. I zip my backpack up and try to keep looking at Julia’s face.
Julia opens her mouth to talk but doesn’t. Then she does. “Your mom told me, well,” she moves her hands around in her sweatshirt’s pocket, “you have a concert tonight.”
Yes—in seven hours and forty-five minutes and I have no idea what I’m going to do about it and I don’t want to talk, especially to you, about anything regarding the stupid thing. I don’t know if I can do it or go to school today or wear those itchy pants and shirt with my last name on it and sit in the front row. Seven and forty-four. Why are you in here?
Julia takes the sunglasses off her head and flips them over and over in her hands. “Well,” she says, “I’m sorry you have to do it.” She looks at me. I didn’t know her eyes were brown.
What are you saying…
“I know they made you go out for band,” she says. Julia puts her sunglasses back on her head and then puts her hands under her thighs. Both of her knees are steadily bouncing. “I know this is weird, uh, and we’ve never really…” she puts her hands back in her pockets. “Anyway I was wondering if you wanted to talk about it or, well, needed any help.”
I don’t know what to say. “How do you—”
“I can tell that you’re afraid but it’s okay, you know.” Julia looks at me again.
Well it doesn’t feel okay, Julia. I don’t need this right now. I have to figure out how I’m going to live through today first and now I’m too distracted to remember how many minutes are left until the concert starts. I don’t know what to do.
“I don’t know how to get help. I asked my mom and she—”
“I know,” Julia says. She looks out the window as she continues speaking. “Your mother is not a bad person, but she has always been afraid of other people that feel differently than her. Or even when she thinks she feels different from herself.”
Mom has nothing to do with this except that she’s the one that made me join band. I don’t like you in here anymore. I need to give Potato a cricket. Why are you defending my mother right now when she doesn’t understand me at all and she just ignores everything that bothers her?
“But she just ignores everything that bothers her.” I stand up and put my backpack on my bed, put my red sweater on, check that my four paperclips are in my jeans. Now I’m angry that you’re talking to me, I don’t know why— “I don’t know why you…this isn’t making me feel any better—I don’t have time to figure out how I’m going to get better right now I have the stupid concert in—”
And then I see it. I watch Julia pull her sunglasses off her head again and hold onto them. I see her expression ease the second she touches them, as if they are her only anchor to a world she can’t control and a reminder that there is still something solid to touch. I look into my trash can, where I’ve discarded four paperclips that I’ve held onto and eventually broken by the end of each day since I was sitting at Mr. Durk’s desk to join band that day I was thirteen minutes late to lunch.
I remember every time I’ve ever interacted with Julia and not actually looked at her, how she talks with a voice that isn’t a whisper, but wouldn’t wake a sleeping baby up, how she is always in her room and out of our way as if she can’t handle facing her burden in our home.
Julia sees me understand. I stop counting to four and let my arms fall limply at my sides. My thoughts aren’t racing anymore. I’m only thinking about what is happening right this second.
“Well now, you don’t have to sort everything out. But maybe figuring something out for the concert will help today.”
I sit on my bed. “Okay.”
“I was a lot like you, Benni,” Julia says. “Except I never got help. I have been sick this way my whole life and I’ve never done anything about it.”
“I don’t want to be like that anymore.”
“And you shouldn’t.” Julia stands up from the wooden chair and puts her sunglasses back on her head. “But you do have to get ready for school now. The concert isn’t until evening—we’ll talk when you get home.” She smiles.
I smile back and watch her as she walks towards the door. When she passes Potato’s cage, she lingers for a second to stroke him with one finger as she goes by and then leaves. He doesn’t move or flinch away from her touch.
It’s you that holds him while I’m not home, isn’t it?
~ ~ ~
Julia Whitley closes and locks her bedroom door after Benni leaves. She had come straight in after school and the two had talked for fifty-five minutes. She held onto the pieces of the four paperclips she had broken throughout the day at school. She told Julia how she limits herself to four each day and that there have now been a hundred and sixty-eight destroyed in worry in the last six weeks.
The girl would be leaving now for the concert with her friend Dylan to get to the school early for warm-up and the family would follow two hours later to watch the performance.
Could you come?
To the concert? Oh, Benni, I’m not sure--
Please? I think it will help. I think I need you to.
Well, all right then. I’ll be there.
Julia stares at her computer like she has been most of the day. She hasn’t gotten any work done because she has been too preoccupied with the idea that she left her room that morning that talk to Benni. It takes more energy to leave her room than she expects every single time she gets the courage to do it.
She wouldn’t have been able to bring herself to focus on the three outdoor magazines she proofreads if she had tried at all.
She thinks about how lucky she is that the magazine company allows her to work one-hundred percent from home and tries to avoid thinking about how pathetic it is her only interaction with the outdoors aside from the trip to the supermarket twice or three times a month is through the stories she cuts and edits and polishes for people around the world to read from their coffee tables or in their bathrooms.
Julia remembers now what Benni had told her about being outside—how if she gets really upset and can’t calm herself down, she goes and lies in the grass. She says the smell of grass, the feeling of ripping it up from the earth and letting it scatter somewhere else, settles her.
Julia sometimes pictures herself as the people in the pictures that go along with the text. If there is a place that really strikes her, she saves it in a separate folder on her drive that she looks through on the worst days.
It’s not to encourage herself that the outside world still exists or give her a positive reason to leave her bedroom. It’s tortuous. She’s reminded of places she will never go because she has never escaped herself.
That’s why she approached Benni this morning. She knew it would throw her backwards for a few days and she wouldn’t be able to function normally until she stopped replaying it, but she wanted to try to make sure Benni didn’t end up like she had.
She had watched Benni at the dinner table in the last six weeks and seen her deteriorate slowly as today’s concert date got closer. She had known Carol Nielsen mandated Benni’s involvement in the band. She had even agreed with her because she was too careful with her words around Carol now—she was being allowed to invade their private family home and so she didn’t want to be anything but accommodating when she wasn’t being invisible.
It takes an entire day’s energy for Julia to join the Nielsens at their dinner table, but she gives it up each night so Carol and Evan and the girls don’t have to go out of their way for her afterwards. On the days Julia goes to the grocery store with Carol, she will not answer the young daughter’s knock and will not join them. It takes several hours to recover from leaving the house.
Each night that Julia doesn’t go downstairs for dinner, there is a plate outside her door when she finally opens it to use the bathroom in the middle of the night when the rest of the house is asleep.
I understand how you are with Ava, Benni. You push her away and ignore her even though it’s so obvious you want to be close to her.
I know I can’t be close to Ava. I love her. I would do nothing but let her down.
Ava Nielsen is walking up the stairs and Julia quiets her breathing. She will not respond when Ava knocks. She will not leave the house with the rest of the family to go to Benni’s concert.
She wants to help the girl find out how to get better, but she knows it will not be her own doing. And she cannot go tonight. She should have told Benni, should have explained more.
Julia will spend each second thinking about the concert and worrying if Benni will be able to get past her itchy pants without pockets and blue shirt with her last name embroidered on it. There won’t be any grass for Benni to smell and she won’t be able to sit on her hands.
She’ll have to count to four the whole night. She’ll look out into the crowd hoping to find the only thing she’s expecting to be constant—Julia sitting next to her parents and sister looking back at her with her sunglasses over her eyes.
But Julia knows she cannot be there. She knows it is too late to save herself from this kind of nonfunctional life.
Julia’s biggest hope though, is that when Benni sits in her chair, the third seat in the front row, she will calm down long enough to open her music folder that will have already been placed there by her bald, nose-picking teacher in preparation.
Because if Benni opens the folder, she will see the sticky note Julia left:
IT’S OKAY, SIT STILL, 1, 2, 3, 4.
Because if Benni can get past the pants without pockets and the shirt with writing and the bald man and the third seat and the front row and the grassless indoor smell and the absence of Julia and she finds the sticky note, she will see what Julia Whitley put on the folder’s pocket right in front of the “Silent Night” sheet music:
One more paperclip.
~ ~ ~
I walk onto the stage holding my flute so tightly I can hear the individual parts try to grind out of place. I am listening to the sound of my feet, singling them out from everyone else’s. I can feel my heartbeat in my ears. It’s too hot in here.
The three rows behind mine are already filled and when my line gets in the correct place, the entire band sits at once. I try to put my left hand in my pocket, but there isn’t one. Mr. Durk is walking out now and the crowd claps.
The lights above stage are shining in my face but I can still make out some faces in the audience. I look for my family.
I don’t want to look at them—I want to see Julia. Even if she has her sunglasses on, I know she’ll be looking at me. I can’t find their faces. I scan again and again but I still can’t see them. Okay, calm down. They’re there. She’s there.
I’m sure Julia is looking at me, so that’s enough. I look at Mr. Durk as he fixes his tie and then turns around.
He makes a short introductory speech, letting the audience know what songs we will be playing and about our fundraiser next month. I’m not listening.
I want to turn around and see Dylan, but I know I should remain frozen in place. My flute feels hot under my hands and I try to loosen my grip.
I straighten my back and look out into the crowd again. I find Ava’s face almost instantly. Thank goodness. I let my eyes go to Ava’s right—there’s Dad, Mom…then no one.
She’s not here. She’s not watching. Everyone else is watching because I’m in the front row. Everyone else is looking at my shirt because it has my last name on it and I’m in the front row so they can probably see it and are all reading it. Julia’s not here. Potato felt a little warmer than normal but I forgot to turn his lamp off. Mr. Durk is turning towards us and he’s going to motion to us to be in ready position any second. I’m so close to the end of the stage I would probably fall off if I stood up. I don’t remember what song we play first. I don’t think my hands will stop shaking enough for me to hold my flute up to my lips. Why did my parents force me to join band—I can’t be in band, I can’t play the flute, I can’t turn my brain off. Potato needs to be moved over to the other side of his cage. It’s time to start.
The only sounds now are everyone opening their music folders and getting ready to follow Mr. Durk’s signal to begin. I don’t move. I’m not breathing. My heartbeat isn’t just in my ears anymore. Everyone has opened their folders.
I’m not breathing. I’m breathing. It’s time to start. I dig my fingernails into my flute. I need to let go. I turn the silver instrument over and over and lift it slightly. Okay, okay, you can do it. Just open the folder.
I let go of my flute with my right hand and move it towards the folder on the music stand. I touch it, but my fingers can’t lift it open. My eyes are watering. I close them.
I try again.