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Authors: Lauren McLaughlin

Cycler

For Carol and Tom McLaughlin

February 16

Jill

“I am all girl.”

It’s my own voice I hear as I lie in bed half-awake, half-asleep. In my dream, I’m walking barefoot through the woods behind my house. It’s fall, and the flame-colored leaves float softly downward. Out of nowhere, a Ferris wheel appears and I get on without a ticket.

“I am all girl.”

I say it because my body is betraying me.

In my dream, the colorful autumn day becomes night. The Ferris wheel speeds up, breaks free of its foundation and rolls through the darkened woods. Shearing tree branches with loud splintery crunches, it rolls toward the black lake at the edge of the tree line.

From deep within me, behind organs, beneath muscles, a jagged pain is born.

“I am all girl!”

I open my eyes to the real night, the thick molasses darkness of it. But it’s only when I spot the red numbers of my clock that I’m sure I’m awake: 4:27 a.m. The pain is building to a sure and steady climax and I don’t know who I am.

Jack or Jill.

“I am all girl!” I squeeze through clenched teeth.

There’s a land mine exploding outward from my stomach and lower spine.

I’m not supposed to wake up in the middle of things. All of this is supposed to happen while I sleep. I shove my hand beneath the sheets, praying, hoping the transformation is nearly complete, but when I reach lower, there it is—limp, smooth and insistent.

Jack.

He’s supposed to fade in the night and I’m supposed to wake up fully constructed. Instead, I have his
thing
to contend with and a deep ache that, now that I think of it, is not exploding outward but sucking inward like a vortex.

“I am all girl.”

That’s my mantra. I use it to forget. But it does nothing to ease the pain.

The muscles of my abdomen spasm and I squeeze Jack’s thing in response, as if he were doing this to me—the sadistic jerk. I know that’s not true. Grabbing the pillow with my other hand, I press it to my face.

“I am all girl,” I growl. I don’t want to scream, but I can’t stop myself.

“I . . . !”

I’m lost now, a rudderless ship on a wild and cruel ocean.

“Mom!”

I know she can’t help. No one can.

“Mom!”

The bedroom door opens; then the bed sags with Mom’s weight. Her perfect brown bob is sleep-mussed and her pale face bears deep pillow wrinkles.

“Shhh,” she says. “It’s okay, honey. ‘I am all girl.’ Say it.”

“I am all girl.”

I want to absorb relief from these words or from the forced calm of my mother’s face, but relief never comes. Looking past her, I spot Dad hovering in the doorway, disheveled as always and chewing on his thumbnail. No relief there either.

Then the split begins.

At the base of Jack’s thing, the pain gathers to a diamond point. I grab Mom’s cool hand and squeeze. My flesh punctures from within. Then, zipperlike, it tears itself open. I throw my head from side to side.

“I.” Gasp. “Am.” Gasp. “All.” Gasp. “Girl!”

“It’s okay,” Mom says. But I hear the strain in her voice. She’s starting to panic too.

The split now complete beneath Jack’s quivering thing, I try to pull my legs together. I don’t know why. Protective instinct, I guess. But I can’t control my legs or anything else. My body is in control, orchestrating its mal proceedings from the angry vortex at the base of my spine.

The vortex sucks harder now, pulling at my bones, my muscles, retracting my thighs, melting the firm stomach until it’s soft and feminine. My body remakes itself with no mercy, sanding the crisp edges from my jawbone, deflating the gentle biceps, brutally inflating my breasts.

“I am all girl!” I scream, all sense gone.

“Shhh,” Mom says. “Breathe, baby.”

But every breath is a new gut wound. The bones of my ankles rearrange themselves in miniature. Even my toes protest the change. Unthinkingly, I clench Jack’s thing with my sweaty hand and force the breath out in an angry rhythm.

“That’s right,” Mom says. “Breathe.”

With what’s left of my brain, I can still remember, I can still think. Jackthoughts, Jackfears, Jackdesires. He’s angry. At me. At Mom. He doesn’t like chunky peanut butter and she keeps feeding it to him. He wants a new pair of boxer briefs and some Elvis DVDs. He wants us to turn the Internet back on.

“I am all girl!”

I clench Jack’s thing harder now and it slips weakly from my slick palm into the sucking mouth of the vortex.

And then it’s gone.

All of it.

Not just Jack, but the pain too. That’s the merciful afterthought of this wicked hullabaloo. The pain doesn’t fade slowly the way it builds. It evaporates in a euphoric instant.

I look up at Mom’s ever-calm face backlit from the hall light spilling through the open door. She whisks a strand of hair from her eyes, then touches my cheek with the backs of her fingers. “Plan B?” she says.

“Not now,” I say. “Too tired.”

I lift my head to look at Dad. His greasy hair and guru beard connect in a continuous circle of grunge around his frightened face. He’s the same mess he has been for years. But I’m so blissed out on post-agony, I can’t help but love the guy.

“Sorry, Dad,” I say.

“It’s okay, honey.”

But he’s still chewing on his thumbnail because it’s not okay and he knows it. It’s never going to be okay either. Not for him, not for me. Not for any member of the McTeague household.

Within this house is a monster, a freak, a slave to the calendar and my own lunatic hormones. Before every menstrual cycle—every phase of the moon, if you want to be romantic about it—I am savagely transformed from girl to boy for four full days, then wickedly reshaped into girlflesh again. Most of the time, I sleep right through it. Most of the time.

“Good night,” I say. “I’ll do Plan B in the morning.”

Within seconds, I’m out.

Four and a half hours later, my eyes open to the bleak February light straining to pass through my bedroom’s frosty windows. Sinking low beneath the down comforter, I cocoon myself for an extra moment. But when dim memories of the night before begin to intrude, I peel the comforter back and begin the rituals of Plan B.

Not the contraceptive, dummy. Believe me, if I could have prevented Jack’s conception, I would have been all over that. Plan B is my four-step method for minimizing the overall malness of his existence.

The first step is to fix an image of my female face in my mind’s eye. I do this by sitting upright in bed and facing the mirror above my dresser. I stare at my too-small eyes, my wide cheeks. I am not beautiful, but that’s not the point. I am female. That’s what matters. Straining to banish judgment, I absorb the image.

In Step Two, I lie down, close my eyes and begin my mantra: “I am all girl.” Silently, I repeat the phrase in time with my breathing. It’s like this: Breathe in, think:
I am.
Breathe out, think:
all girl.
Meanwhile, I envision a black dot in the center of my forehead. That’s the third eye. If I maintain focus and calm, the black dot inflates like a balloon until it engulfs my whole head. That’s the meditative state.

In Step Three, I project Jack’s four days onto the blackness as if it were a giant movie. Then, before I can absorb any of the details, I make the image fade to black.

In Step Four, I paste the mirror image of my own face onto the blackness. It’s dim at first, but as I repeat the mantra in rhythm with my breathing, it sharpens and brightens until I see a crystal clear image of my imperfect female face. At that moment, I know it’s safe to open my eyes. Whatever transpired during Jacktime is erased, forgotten, swallowed up by the vortex with his limp thing. That’s Plan B. Pretty brilliant, huh?

Sitting up on the bed, I take a big disgusting whiff of myself, then head straight for the shower. Jack doesn’t bathe. I wrote him a note about it once and he wrote back that since he has to endure
my
PMS for the duration of his phase, I should cut him some slack on hygiene. I guess that makes sense in boy logic. I run the shower hot and steamy, then lather up to begin the de-stinkification.

I’m not saying I’m a genius or anything, but you have to admit that Plan B is a deeply non-dumb invention. We cobbled it together after the nightmare transformations began at the tender age of fourteen. By “we,” I mean mostly me and my mom. Dad had already begun his slide into that mal universe of yoga, hair growth and transcendental meditation he now occupies from his headquarters in our basement. But that’s another story. You know what Dad’s initial response to my crisis was? “Let’s all meditate toward acceptance.”

Acceptance schmacceptance. If you’re blind, you can talk about acceptance. If you’re deaf or paraplegic or have any number of comparably tolerable conditions, you can talk about acceptance. What I have is not acceptable.

Nor is this oil slick masquerading as my hair. Jack takes greasy to a new level. I squirt out half a bottle of shampoo and let it sit on my head as I shave my stubbly legs. I have four full days of neglect to deal with in here.

So anyway, back to Plan B. Medical science had nothing to say on the subject of my bewildering condition, so when the gazillionth hospital visit resulted in yet another round of incredulous stares from a roomful of medical skeptics, Mom and I decided to do our own research. We spent hours and days and weeks and months online and at the library. We read medical journals written in jargon so technical you had to read other books just to understand them. We learned so much about the human body, we could have performed open-heart surgery on each other. And you know what the grand conclusion of all this research was? “You’re on your own, sweetheart.”

Those were dark days, I can tell you. Dad had moved into the basement by then. Mom was experimenting with estrogen therapy. On herself! And I was hiding out in my room lest anyone discover the mortifying truth about my cyclical “condition.”

Then one day, while spiraling down the Google rabbit hole, I stumbled on a Web site for people who use self-hypnosis to erase painful memories.

My wheels started turning.

You see, we’d already decided to hide my condition from the outside world when it became clear that medical science was basically useless. Mom even went to the principal of Winter-head High with a phony doctor’s note and a story about how I needed blood transfusions every four weeks for a severe iron deficiency, thus smoothing over my periodic absences from school. I figured since we were obliterating the condition from the public record, why not obliterate it from my own memory? I’ll admit, it was a crazy idea, as evidenced by the fact that it drew Dad out of his basement yoga hole to donate his newfound expertise on transcendental meditation. Oddly enough, it was the perfect addition. He even came up with the mantra “I am all girl.”

I’ve been doing Plan B for three years now, and it works so well I no longer have any recollection of my days as a boy. It’s like hitting the delete button on my memory. Bam! Four days disappear.

Told you it was brilliant.

As I step from the shower into the warm embrace of a clean white towel, I am smooth, degreased and stink free.

I stand in front of my overstuffed closet to wait for inspiration. Per usual, I’ve woken up with my period, so I select my extra stretchy black jeans. Then I add a white lace top and a burgundy velvet jacket. I’m about to head downstairs for breakfast when I remember a critical incident from the day before Jack arrived. It happened in chem lab.

Mom knocks on the door. “French toast’s ready.”

She always makes French toast on my first day back.

“Wait, Mom.” I open the door. “Cell phone?”

She removes it from the front pocket of her beige pants. “We should just have this thing fastened to the side of your face, you know.”

“Funny.” I take it from her and close the door. Then I call my best friend, Ramie. She picks up on the second ring.

“I need your advice,” I tell her.

“It’s Saturday,” she says. “Do I have to be wise?”

“I’ll settle for non-dumb,” I say. “When can you get here?”

“Depends.”

“On?”

“On whether I can excavate your closet,” she says. “I’m working on some new ideas.”

When Ramie says “new ideas,” start worrying. She’s obsessed with fashion. Not “mindless status fashion,” as she calls it, but “serious editorial fashion,” whatever that is. She once came to school wearing her father’s gray business suit
underneath
a 1940s vintage swimsuit. That’s Ramie.

“Deal,” I say. “Just get here.”

Ramie arrives half an hour later and rips me away from the remains of my French toast. She’s armed with a stack of Italian
Vogue
s, so we head straight up to my room. I love when my first day back falls on a Saturday so I can spend some quality girl time with Ramie. It’s like pounding one final nail into Jack’s coffin.

Spreading the magazines out on my bed, she sits among them and starts flipping through the November issue. Without looking up, she says, “Treatments go okay?”

“Piece of cake,” I say. The “treatments” are my fictional blood transfusions. Ramie stopped pumping me for details about them when I told her I did not want to be “defined by my illness.”

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