On the walk home from the bus, she practices what she will say about her day. There was a pep rally this afternoon. Principal
Wheezely Weasley gave a speech I didn’t bother listening to, then the cheerleaders made a pyramid. Gina winked at me from the top. Her cheeks were painted with school colors, and her hair was tied back with a red ribbon I gave her for her half-birthday. It was part of a set of primary and secondary colors, purchased not because they reminded me of rainbows but because I know she wants to be a graphic designer one day. She practices her skills by photoshopping me into photos her family takes of her on vacation. Here we are walking Ruby, the Irish Setter. Here we are collecting broken shells on a cold, rocky beach. Here we are posing in front of a waterfall just moments after I kissed her on the cheek. Her family is okay with it; her family knows. When I go to her house, her mother makes champurrado and rice pudding. We eat at the dining room table and aren’t forced to say grace. We’re not forced to say anything.
As soon as she walks in, the interrogation begins.
What classes did you have today? English, Physics, History.
Don’t you have four classes a day? French was cancelled for the pep rally.
A likely story, he says. What was the pep rally for? The football game tonight.
Who are they playing? I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s as important as my studies.
That’s true. You don’t have the physique for an athletic scholarship anyway, he says. Did you have any tests today? One, on
U.S. imperialism and interference in Latin America the rise of communism in Cuba, Nicaragua, and other Latin American nations.
When will you get the results? A few days.
Bring me the exam when you get it back. I want to see the questions. Okay.
How much homework do you have? A fair amount.
Better get to work then. Yes.
This is the calmest part of her day. She stretches out on the floor of her bedroom, lays out her notebooks and textbooks, and disappears into other people’s problems. If Jennifer is traveling at 60 mph on a level surface, assuming a coefficient of static friction of .75 and kinetic friction of .67, precisely how fucked is she if she hits that wall? If Cyrano de Bergerac were alive today and desperately in love, how easily could he trick his beloved with a deepfake? Does the existence of a Cher Guavara shirt imply the existence of a Chair Guavara shirt? In 5,000 words, prove that the rise of capitalism has resulted in the proliferation of modern slave labor and doomed the planet in its neverending quest for capital. Now argue the exact opposite—jk, there aren’t two sides to this argument. Your father is wrong. He is always wrong.
He is a lawyer. His home office is directly below her bedroom. On calls, his voice booms, the sound rising through the slats in the floorboards. He doesn’t like her to listen to his calls. One time, she asked about an unfamiliar legal term she overheard (“arrears”), and he snapped, “Never you mind. Don’t meddle in my affairs.” Now whenever he’s on a call she puts on music, wearing only one earbud in case he calls her name suddenly. He expects immediate responses, acceptable answers. He does not allow her to talk to her friends. Whenever she needs to make a call, he dials the number for her in order to match whoever picks up to the name she gives: Gina Marcano. We have calculus together. I want to ask her a question about this problem.
After handing her the receiver, he crosses his arms, monitoring her behavior.
What she says is, “Hey. I’m confused about problem two. How do you solve for ‘e’?” but what she means is, I love you. He’s standing right here, and because they have rehearsed this and because Gina’s soft phone voice doesn’t carry, she ignores the calculus question; they both know there’s no solving for e, anyway. Her real reason for calling is to fantasize about the future. In six months, both girls will leave Vancouver, WA, to attend Carnegie Mellon University, where Gina will study electronic and time-based media in the School of Art and where her father, the lawyer, thinks she’ll be pre-law, though she really plans to study comparative literature and move in with Gina, who has found affordable off-campus housing, she says.
“We can get a one-bedroom. I’ll grow sage, rosemary. You can finally get a smartphone.”
Deep in the back of her mind, the image forms: of a normal day (brisk, partly sunny) with no interrogations, no rehearsed calls, no random room searches, only life, all those little moments of life she has only read about in books, like sleeping in, making love in the morning light, eating cereal out of a coffee mug because you’re late and in a hurry, rushing between classes, pausing at lunch to say hello, goodbye, see you later, and the very concept of later, the thought of being out, not locked in her bedroom, at three, at four, after dinner, when the world, she has heard, twinkles with neon and puddles are shimmering reflections of everything she loves: Gina and ramen and a breed of Spaniel she calls Sweet Prince instead of Cavalier King Charles because the rank suits it better. While her heart swells at this idea of the future, her face remains attentive, even confused. She pretends to look down at the differential equation and have a revelation. “I didn’t realize that was possible. Thank you.”
© Ruth Joffre
[This piece was selected by Heather Cripps. Read Ruth’s interview]