Authors: R. A. Nelson
swimming to mars
Sleep is a soft, cushy place somewhere below me, but I’m stuck on a shelf that won’t let me sink any lower. It’s exhausting up here. By some satanic miracle I’m also forced to hold the shelf up.
Mr. Mann’s not coming.
He would have been here by now.
The terrible high from what I did at the wedding is gone, but the scaffold of the high is still there. It jangles my legs like an electrical field. I lie on my back to spot an orange star out the window. Mars. In another couple of months it will be the closest it has come to the Earth in sixty thousand years. It’s already flooding our planet with War Vibes.
I’ve grown three inches in one hour. I’m being made ready for battle.
I grind my teeth. I’m flopping around so much, Kitty Nation leaps off the bed and pads disappointedly up the hall. I shift to a diagonal position on the mattress so my Amazonian feet won’t hang over. You can only do this if nobody is sharing your bed with you.
I can’t stop thinking about Mr. Mann and Alicia, the newly joined couple.
What they are doing right now. Newly joining.
I wiggle my toes together, desperately pretending some of them are his. This is what marriage must feel like: a nest of ecstatic phalanges.
A sickening possibility washes over me:
What if the joining is not so new? What if Mr. Mann was
both of us at the same time? I jerk up to a sitting position, hands in fists. Kill her. Kill them both.
Is he saying the same things to her that he said to me?
WILD Nights! Wild nights! Were I with thee, Wild nights should be Our luxury!
A little poetry, and we flop on our backs in the open-for-business position? Or does Emily Dickinson only work on stupid smart girls like me?
Were I with thee
Another thought sends me springing up like a galvanized frog: Alicia is falling asleep in his arms tonight. I never could.
I smother a banana spider scream with my pillow. My lips blubber across the pillowcase, but I’m too electromagnetic to bawl. The house is rattling in rhythm to Dad’s vast asthmatic snores.
I have to do something to keep from tearing at my flesh.
I kick off the covers and haul my telescope, a four-inch refractor, out to the backyard. I’m wearing nothing but a nightshirt, but the hour feels good on my skin. I’m a Japanese carp, a koi, swimming in darkness.
Dew wets my long toes. I plant the scope’s wooden legs in a grassy spot away from my parents’ window. The light is okay here; Schuyler shot out the streetlamp with a CO2 pistol the day I got my scholarship letter:
Professor Emeritus of Astronomy Stephen N. Bracewell is pleased to announce
—squat. I didn’t get the paperwork in on time. So now I’m not going. I don’t particularly care. Not anymore.
Mars is crossing Aquarius.
Refractors are old school but better than reflectors for resolving surface details. I take out my best eyepiece, a 25-mm orthoscopic, drop it in. For once I don’t wait for the optics to cool. The altizimuth controls turn smoothly in my fingers. There it is: Mars, a tiny orange ball. I have to constantly adjust the scope to keep it in view. I used to be saving up for a clock drive that tracks the object automatically as it crosses the sky.
Used to be. What’s the use anymore in dreaming, wanting, planning? What good have those things ever done me? In the end?
I look at Mars. A dust storm covering two billion square acres looks like mold on a peach. Light sweeps over the lawn as a car floats by.
My heart expands.
Mr. Mann drives a ‘99 Civic. Green with tan interior. It smells like vanilla and vinyl. The glove box is crammed with misfolded maps. If you tilt the seats all the way back, you can—he’s here! He’s here!
The Honda rolls away. I watch until it reaches the end of the block and turns, disappears behind a fence.
When I look again, Mars has skidded out of view and the moon is rising. I put the eyepiece back in its Tupperware box and swim back inside, starting to cry.
Koi are domestic mutations of the common freshwater carp,
. They are sexually mature at twelve inches in length.
What am I a mutation of?
The sky gray as this dissecting table where I’m sitting. There is massive suction today.
Human phys class. I’m certainly human and physical today. I’ve got my period this morning. I feel like Veruca Salt in the Blueberry-Squeezing Room.
So I’m not pregnant.
This makes me want to flip over tables and throw chairs through the windows we don’t have.
Still, it’s my turn.
Exactly five minutes past eight I march into the stinking Closet of Death and fetch Pussy Pancreatic from the blue plastic body bin. Pussy Pancreatic is the calico kitty cat we have been hacking to pieces all semester.
This is the largest dead life I’ve ever held. At this point Pussy Pancreatic is about as organic as Mom’s Victorian hassock, but not as soft. I open the bag on the table and a smell comes into my mouth— not of something dead, but maybe a strange new type of metal.
“Phew, daddy,” Hub Christy says across from me, blowing out his lips. “Gonna have some fun with you today, aren’t we, sweetie baby?”
He’s talking to the cat again.
Hub Christy is an offensive Offensive Tackle from the football team. He has a fifty-four-inch chest and likes to put his size-fourteen clodhoppers between my legs under the table. Ms. Larimore likes to employ the Friction Method of pairing lab partners: she believes my academic mojo will rub off on him. I wonder what will rub off on me.
Obsessive Thought for the Morning:
But I know he won’t come rescue me today, either.
By now he’s on his honeymoon down in ole Mexico. Exploring Olmec ruins. Dancing around hats. Drinking bottles of stuff with worms on the bottom. Watching skeletons haul statues of the Virgin Mary through town.
Focus on something else, anything. That’s what you’re good at. I look around.
Here nobody has a face yet.
A few are attempting to speak: Saturday night, bad makeup, cars, hair. Worst of all, TV. I have a theory: Small talk and television are killing Western civilization. I refuse to take part in the slaughter.
Not that they would ask me to.
The first day we took our cats out, Susan Carter said: “Just like
!” All I could say was, “Um, yeah.” I had no idea what she was talking about. Now she figures I’m a complete freak. She doesn’t try to talk to me anymore.
I looked it up on the net.
is a show about criminal forensics. I don’t watch much TV except for old movies with Mom, the Discovery Channel, History Channel, TLC with Dad. The other stuff is a huge waste of time. Now all the kids are hot to investigate homicides.
They know to leave me alone.
But back to business.
Hub Christy’s eyes are wet. Today he gets to use the big steel bone pliers. He already has them hooked on thumb and forefinger in rednecked anticipation. I clench my teeth and scalpel an entry-way into Pussy’s small head. Hub goes to work quickly, opening the skull with a chicken-crunching sound.
He waves a gobbet of cat-head meat around. Only the pretty girls laugh.
“Mr. Christy,” Ms. Larimore says.
But now he’s attacking the membranes, the kitty cat corpus callosum. Splitting poor Pussy Pancreatic into creative side and math side. We take out the bisected brain, weigh it, slice it, seal it like a tiny stack of wrinkly baloney in a kitty cat canopic jar.
We’re done way ahead of everybody else. Hub Christy is restless; there’s not much left on this cat to violate. The mouth? He pries his way in and explores this tight little cavity with the pliers.
“Here we go, baby.”
My stomach lurches. It’s inhuman how far a kitty cat tongue will stretch.
Schuyler would say.
“Stop it,” I say. “Please.”
Hub Christy doesn’t notice my horror—that I’m about to spew. His eyes glisten as he strains.
“Come on, baby! Give!”
There it is again, the chicken-tearing sound.
I grab a pass from Ms. Larimore, push my way out to a chorus of snickers, stumble down the hall past closed classroom doors.
My head is full of blood. The empty hallway tips over on its side. My face is sweaty cold.
Nobody uses the bathroom beside the principal’s office. I stagger in, find a stall, fold over, and hug my knees. It’s possible to sleep sitting on a toilet. My consciousness wanders and finally blackens. I dream about Mr. Mann, his wedding picture in the newspaper. Only now he isn’t smiling. His beautiful eyes are black, hollowed out. He’s dead.
Serves him right.
When I wake up, my legs have gone numb.
How did I get here?
in the beginning
That’s the only way to explain finding yourself behind the Wal-Mart Rule the World Super Center kissing your teacher. Rewind to January.
In the beginning I’m sitting in language arts waiting on Mr. Mann. He’s coming over from a school in Huntsville. Nobody’s ever seen him before. He’s late.
New block, new year, new teacher. I picked poetry for my last semester as a senior thinking maybe, just maybe, I’m a little top-heavy in the sciences. Really I just wanted to mix up a new batch of kids.
It doesn’t work.
“Hey, Nine, you got a pen I can borrow?”
Harold Waters is sitting in front of me. He’s been asking me for pens for years. Never once has he given any of them back. I close my eyes and focus.
What do I know about him? Start with the birthmark on the back of his neck.
Color: wine. Size: penny. Shape: Large Magellanic Cloud.
Harold’s head has no crown. His hair divides in a clumsy line, one rank climbing over the top of his skull, the rest spilling down in a long, silky, asymmetrical point I ache to snip.
More? He loves reruns of
Star Trek: Voyager
. Robotics. Backgammon. But most of all, HO-scale model railroads. That’s right, choo-choo trains. The kind with cardboard towns and green sandpaper posing as grass.
The kind you hide in the basement.
How do I know all this? I focus. That’s what I do best. I observe. I learn.
Whether I want to or not. It’s a gift. Sometimes it’s also a little bit of a curse.
I know these kids too well. Their voices, their minds, their eyes, the ways their bodies move, their sounds.
Which are slow, which are brainy, which probably had sex at fourteen.
I know their favorite subjects, their clothes. What they think of Asians. How their parents treat them.
Okay, that’s easy. Anybody can figure that last one out.
But I’m sick of them all.
I don’t hate them. I don’t hate. It’s counterproductive. Besides, I actually find people really fascinating. It’s just that, after four years—seven, if you count middle school—twelve, going back all the way with a lot of them—there’s not much left to observe.
Worse, the older they get, the more crystallized they become. Harold was pretty cool in the fifth grade. This guy was a genius with Legos. Now he’s becoming calcified as we speak.
That’s why I’m something of a loner. It’s impossible to find more friends like Schuyler. Kids who are fluid, changeable, on fire. Kids with some range.
“Oh my God, he ’s hot.”
That’s Britton Keller. Her place on the Evolutionary Scale? She has a henna bar code tattooed at the top of her butt.
Don’t even mention it.
Not one boy in this class interests me. Or any of my classes, for that matter. Too lazy. Too mean. Too cool. Too immature. Too dull.
He just made a grunting noise deep in his throat. You can time them. He often smells faintly of chlorine.
It’s no better with the teachers.
Last semester was Mr. Fields. I know what brand of coffee he drinks. How many cups a day. What caused his divorce: credit cards and quite possibly the length of the fur in his ears.
So now, today, right this minute, I’m really looking forward to something different.
We’re startled when he comes through the door. Our new teacher.
He doesn’t say hello, good morning, nothing.
I don’t even get more than a peek at his face. He just blows through the door and immediately starts jabbing the blackboard with a piece of chalk.
No gut, very trim, younger than most. Black Dockers, white, long-sleeved shirt. Mr. Mann is tall, broad back, arms long. Something about the way he slouches as he writes makes him approachable, friendly. Even vulnerable. I still haven’t seen his face.
There’s something beautiful and wild in the sound of his slashing strokes. He’s writing so fast, the clicking of the chalk sounds aggressive:
Kenny once pushed me off the monkey bars a couple of geologic epochs ago. He has a snarling mouth and hair the color of morning pee.
There’s a sprinkling of embarrassed laughter. I wince, already worried for my new teacher.
“Mr. Atkinson,” Mr. Mann says without turning around.
Wow. His voice is strong and deep. Just the slightest trace of an accent. New England? He turns to face us, bringing audible gasps from the girls. His eyes are frostbite blue, his dark hair hangs partly across his face like Johnny Depp’s. How old is he? Twenty-five? Twenty-eight?
“Would you tell us, please, Mr. Atkinson, what does a poem mean?”
Kenny sits up straighter and glances from side to side as if searching for a brother or a cousin.
“Huh? What poem?”
Kenny grins at nothing, puts his hands up helplessly.
“I don’t know what you want me to say.”
Mr. Mann pulls down the white screen in front of the blackboard and slaps a slide on the overhead projector. It’s a poem. We read:
MY life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
He claps chalk dust from his long hands and touches the poem with the tip of a finger. “How about this one? Tell the class what this poem means, Mr. Atkinson.”
Kenny opens his mouth. Closes it. Opens it again. The flies are getting confused.
“I hate poetry,” he says finally.
“I hate poetry,” Mr. Mann says. “Why?”
“Because it’s freaking boring, you know.”
Kenny smirks and looks around for the affirmation he knows is there. “Because it doesn’t make any sense. It has nothing to do with nothing. It’s a great big waste of time.”
“Mr. Atkinson,” Mr. Mann says, staring hard, “I fully agree.”
Mr. Mann leans toward his desk, takes the back of his chair in his big hands. His hair is floating. “Poetry is boring,” he says. “A huge waste of time. Meaningless. Hardly relevant to today’s world. In fact, it sucks ass.”
All the air rushes out of the room. Even the comatose are jolted into rousing. Mr. Mann sweeps his beautiful eyes over us, huge, blazing.
“We’re doomed, you and I, to a semester of boring, ridiculous torture. An entire chunk of your lives will be lost forever. By May you’ll hate my guts. You’ll talk about me behind my back. Tell your friends Emily Dickinson is a brand of upscale furniture. Unless.”
We wait, his luminescent gaze rapidly becoming unbearable.
“Unless what?” a girl finally says.
The girl is me.
I can’t believe it. I generally never speak in class; I absorb. Mr. Mann swivels his head, eyes pumping blue fire into my face.
“Unless you help me kill it,” he says.
“What? Kill it?”
“Yes. One poem at a time. It’s the only way.” He takes a couple of steps toward me. I squirm. My personal space is big— at least a couple of meters, and most people can quickly tell. But Mr. Mann doesn’t seem to notice he is penetrating it. “But poems are tough to kill,” he says. “I can’t do it alone. Are you with me?”
Sandra Williams leaks a string of compressed giggles behind me—I can tell who it is even without twisting my neck. Has any teacher ever talked like this?
“But how do you kill a poem?” I say, unable to keep my own laugh from squeaking out around the edges.
He cuts his eyes to the door and back, hard, conspiratorial. “The bad ones are easy. You just leave ‘em alone; they eventually fall over and die. The good ones are tough. The harder you try, the stronger they get.”
“Okay, but how?”
“You start by deciding if the author is insane.” He straightens up and steps away from me, looks at the whole class. I can start breathing again. “Well?”
“She’s definitely messed up,” Kenny says, sneering.
Other boys join in, emboldened.
“A whack job.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean, her life closed twice?”
Snickers over the language.
“You may be right,” Mr. Mann says. “Emily lived with her sick father in Amherst, Massachusetts. After the late 1860s, she never again traveled beyond the boundaries of her little town. But she managed to fall in love at least once, so bitterly she wore a bridal gown the rest of her life.”
“Miss Havisham!” a plump girl named Kelly Wunderlich almost shouts, startling herself. “Like in
. I mean, the wedding dress, she was nuts.”
“Yes,” Mr. Mann says. “Like Miss Havisham, Emily never married. In fact, some believe the love of her life was a woman.”
A communal “ooh” rises from the class. “Lesbo,” Kenny says.
“That makes you crazy?” Havisham-Kelly says.
“Crazy like you.”
Mr. Mann is enjoying this. He jerks the first slide away, slaps down another:
Her breast is fit for pearls, But I was not a “Diver”
The class erupts.
Havisham is waving her arm when the place finally settles down. “But that means she wasn’t a lesbian. She wasn’t a diver.”
Mr. Mann puts down another slide.
TO see her is a picture, To hear her is a tune, To know her an intemperance As innocent as June
“To know her,” a voice says from the back.
We’re shocked. It’s Matt. His hair is Rust-Oleum black. He wears a button every day that says JESUS PHREAK and prays by the flagpole every morning with his friends. I’ve rarely heard him speak. “That’s from the Bible,” Matt says. “To know somebody means—it’s physical.”
Mr. Mann smiles. “Interesting. Damned interesting. So, was she insane?” He pauses, glaring, puts both hands on his desk with a seismic thump. “Emily Dickinson wrote over eighteen hundred poems. Only eight were published during her lifetime. Now that’s what I call insane.”
An appreciative “ah.”
He slams the first poem back up on the screen, points at it. The shadow of his finger looks like a gun.
“Okay. Who’s ready to help me murder this one?”
I adore him already.