When word got around that the boy Mart had talked to two weeks and five days ago had been caught selling a pack of cigarettes to his classmate behind the playground shed, people began clearing their schedules for her bulletin ceremony. At midnight, pale blue light spilled into the windows of the corner shop, the condominiums, the town hall, grazing the surface of the Pond, snaking along cracks in the concrete like veins, leaving an invite at doorsteps. Before dawn the square was filled with residents, each squirming to get a view of the updated bulletin board. Mart’s name rose out of mouths in excited squeals and appreciative hums as the residents eagerly stared at the empty podium and awaited the arrival of the golden child.
I didn’t go to Mart’s address. I didn’t need to. It’s always the same thank-you story lead-up to an oh-so-motivational peroration kind of speech. That’s how we’re supposed to format them. The nervous nobodies lack experience; they give bland addresses and attract bland audiences. All someone like Mart has to do to earn cheers is stand there, though she still follows the rules and gives her addresses and smiles and says thank you and shakes hands and poses for pictures. I don’t think it’s the words being spoken that are giving people the adrenaline rush anyway.
So I sit by the emptied town market and let the wind distort the distant voices. About an hour after the noise from the square first started to die down, two Reebok-clad feet appear in front of me.
“I knew you’d be here,” says Mart, not sitting down. Her arms are crossed.
I grace her with a half-smile. “Wasn’t waiting for you or anything.”
“You’re always lounging around by this marketplace. I’ve never even seen you buy anything.”
I shrug. “Not in desperate need of anything at the moment.”
“Or ever, it seems.” She digs the tip of her Reebok into the loose pebbles lining the sidewalk.
“Why did you leave so early? All the worship and praise getting old for you?” I ask her, standing up and working out the kinks in my legs. “You walked all the way over here too.”
“I just needed some air,” she says. “Let’s get drinks.”
“Drinks? You gonna make me pay again?” I joke.
She squints, then shoves my shoulder. “Fuck you, Sam. You know you have money.”
“Oh, I’m amazed. Does the golden child not need refractory periods after her ceremonies?” I make a pouty face at her. She flips me off and I laugh. This is why I like Mart. She possesses a natural ability to be a bitch. I’ve always hoped I could learn a thing or two from her, if only to piss off my father in the right way at least once. It was an easier task to call names in school, but calling names is something anyone can do. It’s too low-grade for the offspring of a Congressman. Or so says the Congressman. I don’t disagree. Problem is, I can’t seem to do anything about it. It’s not like I’m going to inherit his quick mind when I inherit his money.
He treats me better than he did before I knew Mart—and I mean really knew her. We always knew of her. Not even a teen and her name was always near the top of the bulletin board. Barely ever moved down. Then she got older and her name was always at the top. I remember some of her addresses. She was accompanied by a woman back then. The woman would read out the bulletin list of hurtful acts as a prelude while my father’s voice served as the devil’s echo in my ear. Not convincing enough to plant stories and spread rumors, not boldfaced enough to lie, not persuasive enough to discourage, not sly enough to leak information, not proud enough to flaunt my wealth. He was never around but his voice is stuck in my head all the same. How do you suppose she got up there? What do you think I’m supposed to say when people ask after you? What am I supposed to do when they clear their throats about you, about me? Are you going to be the proof that a Congressman can’t raise his child right?
At the very least I could have learned how to protect myself, but all he taught me was how to be emotional. Trying to be a pleaser by being a hurter, but only finding success in getting hurt. Mart never really came to my defense, and I didn’t need her to, not exactly. Being her friend gave me enough protection. She needs me as much as I need her, even if she doesn’t know it. She often asks me to talk to her, but she’s always the one who ends up talking. Not that I have a problem with it. Like when she says to me, let’s get drinks, I know she’s not asking me to get drunk with her. More like she wants to forget about something with me. This time I ask her if she wants to go to Chelsea’s, and she says, no, I want to go somewhere farther, somewhere we haven’t been before. She says, I’m sick of seeing the same faces and smelling the same smells and hearing the same noises. I want to go somewhere new.
So I drive us north to a tavern that I don’t remember the name of anymore. Ten minutes into the drive, we pass by the Pond. I wonder if Mart is thinking about what I’m thinking about. When I saw her in the morning, a week and a day after we had met, when she had pushed me into the Pond and I had complimented her, and she’d said, Tell me something nobody’s said to me before. She was sitting by the water’s edge, curled up, her head shoved between her knees. I was too far away to know if she was crying or asleep or thinking, but her hair looked wet and stringy. Like maybe she had been pushed in. Or jumped in herself.
I hear a sniffle, but when I look away from the road and at Mart, her eyes are dry.
The dim revving of the car fills the silence between us.
“Mart, why do you still give your addresses?”
“Ever feel like running, Sam?” she says, looking out the window. She’s not sniffling anymore. Perhaps I had imagined it. “Not away from anything you can see. Just running to run.”
Another silence. I don’t know what to say to her because I’ve never felt like I didn’t need to run away, but I’ve also never felt like running. Someone trained me to feel unsafe constantly. Maybe it was my father, maybe it was Mart, maybe it was me, maybe it was anyone. Maybe the tugging sensation in my chest isn’t an urge to run but to escape. I have no words for her, so instead of giving her meaningless ones, I open the passenger window and let the air whip by. Suddenly Mart screams and my stomach lurches. I nearly slam on the brake, but then she starts laughing loudly, alternating her laughs with her screams. She sounds crazy. Maybe she is crazy. My heartbeat isn’t slowing, so I cruise on the adrenaline and press down on the gas, keeping my eyes off the speedometer as I let the acceleration press my body against the seat. Mart continues to laugh and scream, each of her throat-ripping yells pushing a weight off my chest. I check the speedometer. We’re racing ninety-seven miles per hour down the empty road, the trees and fences and yellow-white lines and everything becoming a blur as Mart’s voice travels down the sides of the freeway and leaves behind a trail of ghosts.
# # #
“I always came here with my dad when he was still alive,” says Mart. It’s dark now and she and I are both somewhat intoxicated, she considerably more so. The bottle of whatever is in my hand. Neither of us bothered checking the label, just asked the bartender for something strong. Maybe she wanted to get drunk to forget tonight. She drank nearly half the bottle before saying anything, and then she let herself say everything. Like I’m no longer here. Maybe she’s just talking to the wine bottle.
“I thought you’d never come here before.”
She doesn’t respond at first, and I wonder if she’s making it up. Then she reaches out to me with a bent arm, and I think she’s going to slap me or hug me or something, but she just says, “I need more of that stuff. Hand it over.”
I give the bottle to her. She downs a few large gulps straight from the bottle, winces, groans. Wipes her mouth with her sleeve. Exhales for a few seconds.
“Sometimes I wonder what I’m putting myself through this hell for,” she murmurs. We’re out back but it’s still hard to hear her over the chatter inside the bar.
“Hurting people can be pretty hellish,” I say to her. Not that I know what it’s like.
“I guess it is.” She’s quiet for a moment. “Yeah, I guess I meant that too.”
“That’s just the way life is, Mart,” I tell her. I know it’s a shitty thing to say, but maybe trite things still have some value. “But you’ll make it. Everyone does.”
“No,” she says, slurring a little. “No, you’re wrong. None of us will make it. Whatever finish line you all have in your heads is just some flowery concept. It’s some concept that we’re all too fucking tied up in to notice that the real finish line keeps moving. And we’re never going to be done until we’re dead. We’re never safe. I wake up every day and I’m sick of it.”
I don’t know what to say.
“I’m so tired. I’m so tired of hurting.”
It’s silent again. I wonder if I should comfort her, caress her, kiss her? If I should tell her to suck it up, that we can’t do shit about life being unfair. If I should remind her that she’s the golden child, so why isn’t she enjoying it. I watch as she examines the bottle. She’s twisting it around slowly, like maybe she’s going to throw it or break it or dump out the contents or something. Then she takes a swig. I look at her hands as she drinks, the hands that had pushed me into the Pond. They had felt sure and strong when they shoved me forward, but then again, I hadn’t been looking behind me. What does Mart’s face look like when she hurts someone? What about her heart? The only way I would ever know is if I ripped open her chest and tore apart her ribcage. I’ve hoped to learn something from her, but I already know how to be hurt.
So I grab the bottle from her and swallow the last few sips, then toss the bottle on the ground. “I’m leaving,” I say, not sure to her or to myself.
“What…?” She stands up and takes a few steps toward the bottle as if to pick it up, then turns around to look at me, then turns around again to the bottle, then back at me. “Sam, where are you going? You haven’t paid.”
“You can do that yourself.”
“No, I—wait—Sam, wait!”
“Wait for what?” I spin around to look at her sorry figure. Her eyes are wild, her hair’s a mess, she’s dressed like she forgot how to look presentable in public, for God’s sake. Her fists are clenched. The sight of her drowns me in anger, panic, anxiety, loneliness. “So you can rant to me some more about things I can’t even understand? So you can tell me all about your miserable little life as the girl everyone idolizes, but then willingly bask in society’s praise each time and give us all a lingering view of your pretty finger? I don’t even know if my dad will be home tonight, but I have to prepare myself like he’s going to be there. You were the only thing he was ever proud of me for. That I kissed a golden child’s ass a couple times and got her to be friends with me. Hell if I know what he’s going to think once he figures out I’m not with you anymore. At least you know your dad is dead and gone!”
“Damn you, Sam!” she screams, and it’s not comforting anymore. It punches me in the throat. “Damn you to the deepest pits of hell!”
I know she thinks it’s her turn now, so I start walking away from her.
“You think you’re the one hurting me, but you know nothing!”
My car isn’t too far from here. I keep walking.
“You think you were sucking up to me, but guess what? I got to spend the rich kid’s money on whatever I damn pleased! Who’s kissing whose ass, huh?”
One foot in front of the other, Sam. Ignore what she’s saying. It’s all shit. It’s all meaningless. She means nothing. Nothing means anything.
“At least I know I’m tired of hurting people and that I’m not a fucking psychopath! At least I know something is wrong with this fucking place!”
I keep walking, walking away from the bar, from her, from the lights and noises and sharp smells of alcohol that are too bright and too loud, feeling the darkness wrap around my chest and hearing her screams echo around in my ears before they, too, fade into ghosts.