Danny's mother lost her five-year battle with cancer three weeks before his graduation-the one day that she was hanging on to see.
Now Danny is left alone, with only his memories, his dog, and his heart-breaking ex-girlfriend for company. He doesn't know how to figure out what to do with her estate, what to say for his Valedictorian speech, let alone how to live or be happy anymore.
When he gets a letter from his mom's property manager in Tokyo, where she had been going for treatment, it shows a side of a side of his mother he never knew. So, with no other sense of direction, Danny travels to Tokyo to connect with his mother's memory and make sense of her final months, which seemed filled with more joy than Danny ever knew. There, among the cherry blossoms, temples, and crowds, and with the help of an almost-but-definitely-not Harajuku girl, he begins to see how it may not have been ancient magic or mystical treatment that kept his mother going. Perhaps, the secret of how to live lies in how she died.
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When You Were Here
By Daisy Whitney
Little, Brown Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2013 Daisy Whitney
All right reserved.
When someone you love has died, there is a certain grace period during which you can get away with murder. Not literal murder, but pretty much anything else.
So I’m leaving the school parking lot on the second to last day of my senior year, and I’m driving down Montana Avenue, and this red Mazda Miata cuts me off.
I ignore the Miata. But a few blocks later, I turn onto my street and notice a silver Nissan. No one’s in it; the car is just parked on the side of the road, hanging maybe a few inches into my driveway, and I have nothing against this car, or against the car’s owner, but I am tired of everyone being gone, and I am tired of everything that has tired me out for the last five years of my life. Besides, when making decisions, my mom always said: At the end of my life, when I’m looking back, will I regret not doing this? Fine, she was usually talking about traveling to Italy or taking me out of school to surf one afternoon. Still, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to regret hitting this car for no reason, so I bang into it one, two, three, four, five, six times, each hit radiating under my skin, jump-starting me like paddles to shock the system.
It works for a few seconds. I feel a spark inside me, like a match has been lit in a darkened cave. But then it’s snuffed out and I’m back to the way I was before.
I shift into reverse, and my car’s fender makes this annoying scratching sound as it drags against the road. I pull into my driveway, and I get out of my car. I walk around to the front, and the fender is dangling down to the ground, and it looks like the engine might be smoking, but I don’t feel like dealing because dealing requires too much energy, and energy is what I lack. I head inside, toss the keys on the table by the door, and flop down onto the couch.
My dog, Sandy Koufax, joins me, curling up with her head on my knee. As I rub Sandy Koufax’s ears, I wonder briefly if they will send me to anger-management class or something, but there’s no they to send me away. Sure, there’s Kate, my mom’s best friend, but she won’t. The other theys are all gone. My mom died two months ago, my dad was killed in an accident six years ago, and my sister, Laini, is in China trying to rediscover her roots, something I don’t get, but then again I don’t get a lot about my sister because we don’t have a lot in common, least of all genes. She is adopted from China, and I am a white boy, as she likes to say when she deigns to speak to me.
I put my arms behind my head and consider—what else can I get away with? Is there a statute of limitations on how long you can have a free pass after your mom dies? Because smashing that car is the only thing that’s made me feel in weeks.
I glance at the empty pizza box on the coffee table and pull it toward me with my foot to see if there might still be a slice in it. I notice Sandy Koufax watching my foot, then the box.
“Sandy Koufax, did you finish the pizza?”
She says nothing. Just tilts her sleek black head to the side.
“Well, can you call and order another one?”
She puts one of her white paws on my chest.
The phone rings. I stretch out my arm over to the coffee table, grab the phone, and answer. Mrs. Callahan from next door wants to know if I am all right. No, I am not all right, I want to say. Have you been to my house? Have you seen how empty it is?
“Yup,” I tell her as I flip through the mail: some notices from UCLA, where I’m going in the fall, a bill from Terra Linda High about the cost of my cap and gown. I have to give the valedictory speech in a few days. I toss that envelope away. It crash-lands on the cool, white tiles on the other side of the coffee table where I can’t see it anymore. Looking at it reminds me of what’s missing from graduation. Because my graduation was the one thing my mom wanted most to see. It was her carrot, the thing she was holding on for. I will be there, and I will take pictures, and I will be cheering and crying, and it’ll be my last hurrah.
Mrs. Callahan asks more questions about the accident, as she calls it. Not once does she say it was my fault. Not once does she ask if I rammed my car into another car.
“Do you need anything?” she asks.
A mom. A dad. Someone. Anyone. Can you arrange for that?
“Nah, I’m good.”
Thirty minutes later Kate comes by. I know it’s her from the repeated banging—her signature lately. Who says the Internet is changing how we communicate? We don’t need the Internet. We have a town crier right here in Santa Monica, and her name is Mrs. Callahan—she must have told Kate.
I open the door for Kate, and she is pissed. I guess my statute of limitations has run out with her.
“I know you hit that car on purpose, Danny,” she says, and her voice is loud. She is supposed to be my surrogate mom now or something. She played that role a few times the last couple years, like when my mom was at one of her treatments. My mom wasn’t down for the count often, though. She was tough; she tried hard to get well. You don’t hang on for five years unless you want to live. She wanted to live so badly, she visited Mexico and Greece and Japan many times, seeking out Western doctors and then Eastern medicine and then anything to try to live. But she came up two months short of her goal. Sixty lousy days. Kate’s her best friend and has been since they went to college together. Kate also happens to be the mother of the girl I lost my virginity to. The girl who was mine for three perfect months last summer, and who then left my life without a reason, with barely a call.
The most incredible and the most vexing person I know. It is unspoken, but deeply understood, that Kate and I don’t discuss her daughter. If we were to talk about Holland, I’d never be able to talk to Kate about anything else.
I shrug. “So?”
“Why did you hit a car on purpose, Danny?”
Kate is a tiny person. She’s maybe five feet tall, but she’s a pit bull, and the muscles on her arms are sick. She works out every day, which is not unusual in Los Angeles, granted, but it’s where she works out that’s telling. She works out at Animal House, which is this very macho, very old, very broken-down gym without air-conditioning. The clientele is mostly Arnold Wannabes and guys just out of jail.
“I don’t know.” I walk to the sliding-glass door and open it. Kate follows me. Sandy Koufax does too, then noses a Frisbee on the grass. I pick it up. It has teeth marks etched along the surface. It’s purple and says FIGHT CANCER. A lot of good that did. I throw it far into the yard, around the edge of the pool. Sandy Koufax is like a rocket—she chases it, catches up to it, leaps and grabs.
This dog might be the definition of perfect.
“So you did hit it on purpose?”
“Define on purpose.”
“With intention,” she says crisply.
“Yes, then. I did.”
“What would your mother think?”
I throw the purple disk to Sandy Koufax again. She executes another excellent catch.
“Hard to say,” I answer. “But let’s be honest. She was never a big car person. She always said walking was healthier, so maybe she’d have been glad.”
Kate narrows her eyes. “Not funny.”
“But true. It is true,” I add, and Kate doesn’t answer because she knows how my mom felt about cars. My mom was one of the few people in LA who walked anywhere. I toss the Frisbee again. Sandy Koufax leaps, easily clearing three feet on the vertical. “Sweet! Did you see that, Kate? That is one fine dog.”
I’ll have to see if UCLA will let me have a dog in my dorm. Maybe I’ll get an orphan exception.
Kate holds out her hands. “What am I supposed to do with you?”
I don’t answer. There is no answer.
“Fine,” Kate says, giving in. Her voice softens. “Just give me the insurance info. Give me the name of the claims adjuster, and I’ll make sure everything is taken care of.”
Kate is kind of like a wizard. Give her a shirt with a grease stain from last year. She’ll get it out. Give her a pair of broken eyeglasses. She’ll come back with a new pair free of charge because she’ll convince the store it was owed to her. I give her my insurance info, and I know, in a day or two, this will all be taken care of. She’s the fixer, and she likes it like that.
Her jaw is no longer set hard; her eyes are no longer narrowed. I’m in the clear. “Hey, Kate. Can you also call UCLA and see if I can bring a dog with me in the fall? If they allow that?”
“Of course. We’ll get that dog on campus, no problem,” she says, the look in her eyes softening as she reaches up to give me a kiss on the forehead. I let her, then I throw the Frisbee again to Sandy Koufax, and then again, and then one more time, and at some point Kate leaves, she may even hug me, she may even tell me she loves me, she may even say she’s sorry that life sucks, but I’m lost in the throwing.
And then I realize I’ve been out here for hours. Because suddenly Sandy Koufax is exhausted. She jumps in the pool and starts paddling. I look up at the sun. When did it get to be so low in the sky? How did it become six in the evening when it was three just a few minutes ago?
I might as well join my dog, so I walk straight into the pool, cargo shorts, gray T-shirt, flip-flops, and all.
It’s something, at least, the feeling of water sloshing all around me. I dunk my head, sinking under it all, then I come up and tell Sandy Koufax all the things I wish were different right now.
Jeremy is shooting aliens, Ethan is trying to convince Piper that an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude will hit Los Angeles in the next 365 days, and half the girls volleyball team is schooling half the guys baseball team in pool volleyball. My former teammates are in the deep end on the other side of the net, getting clobbered by the bikini-clad athletes.
I turn up the volume on the sound system because Retractable Eyes is up next on the playlist, and this band is awesome. But before the opening chords sound, I hear the beginning of “Great Balls of Fire.”
On. The. Piano.
I turn to the living room, and the aliens must have extinguished Jeremy because now he’s leaning over the piano and he’s thinking he’s Jerry Lee Lewis.
“Dude, don’t touch that.” I walk over and stand next to the keys.
He pauses. “Just let me play this one song.”
I shake my head. He knows this is my one rule. “Don’t.”
He pounds on more notes, and he’s about to hit the chorus and to sing it too, belt it out, and I’m so not okay with this on so many levels because this is my mom’s piano. She wasn’t some classical performer or piano teacher or anything. But she liked playing for fun, banging out a show tune now and then or a Cole Porter number. Crossword puzzles, gardening, and a few old standards on the piano—those were her little things in life, the little things she did, the little things that made her happy.
Something in my voice stops him, so he backs off, holds up his hands. “Sorry, bud.”
“Go get one of Laini’s guitars if you want to play something,” I say, easing up a bit on my best friend.
“I wish you’d let me have it. You know you’re never going to use the piano.”
Jeremy’s been on this music kick in the last three years. He’s convinced that learning to play piano, guitar, drums, whatever, is going to help him with the ladies. I’ve seen no evidence of improvement in his scorecard with the opposite sex, but he can play the chorus from pretty much any top-ten most-downloaded tune of the moment. Maybe someday that skill will amount to something. For now, it’s entertainment. And for now, and for forever, the piano’s not for sale. I remind him of that as he takes off for Laini’s mausoleum of a room.
I survey the scene in my yard. Trevor, the lunking first baseman who I threw bunted balls to for the first three years of high school, smacks a volleyball in Cassie’s direction. She tries to spike it back but hits air instead, and the ball skips out of the pool. She jumps out to grab it. She has the smallest bathing suit on, and she’s also the weakest player on the team. Trina comes up behind me and whispers in my ear. “I see you watching her,” Trina says as she runs a finger down my arm. What she doesn’t say is, I see you watching her and I don’t care, because, like me, there is little Trina actually cares about, least of all whether I check out other girls, even though I’m not checking out Cassie. If I were checking out girls, I’d only have eyes for one girl.
The incredible and vexing one who’s not here, even though the lasagna she made me the other day is still in my fridge.
Trina trails her index finger across my palm, then adds, “Kicking in for you?”
Trina brings me goodies too, only hers work better than food. She flashes a knowing grin, and I watch as she disappears into the kitchen, wearing low-rise jean shorts and a tank top that shows off her brown skin.
Jeremy returns with my sister’s most expensive classical guitar. Laini played until eighth grade and was pretty damn good, so good my parents were thinking of sending her to some expert teacher at UCLA for lessons. But as with all things remotely American, Laini decided she wanted nothing to do with it. A guitar, even classical guitar, was the most American of all instruments, so she quit. A few years later she quit us too. Laini was never around when my mom became sick. Fine, Laini was in college already, had been for a year before the diagnosis, but she didn’t even come home for the summer or for breaks, except for maybe one week a year. She was gone at the worst possible time, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the same as treating our mom like dirt. Suddenly I no longer want to hear her guitar. I want to destroy her guitar. I’m like a zombie, a living, breathing zombie who won’t stop as I clunk toward Jeremy, who’s jamming on my sister’s handmade Tortorici guitar that my parents special-ordered for her twelfth birthday, and I yank it out of his hands right before he slides into a howling riff.
“I was just getting to the chorus.”
“Go get another one and join me,” I say, because Laini has more acoustic guitars in her unused room. “Are you in or out?”
“What are you talking about?”
I tip my head to the yard and mimic smashing a guitar.
He points to the Tortorici. “You know you can get a couple thousand on eBay for that.”
I don’t need the money. My mom saved well and invested well. We don’t even have a mortgage anymore because she bought this house for cash when she sold off her last business a couple months before she was diagnosed. But not everyone is so lucky to have come into his parents’ possessions at the tender age of eighteen. Or to have to figure out what to do with everything, from the property to the personal effects. Like her clothes. Her books. Her wigs.
I relent. “Take this one and do whatever you want with it. But get the others.”
He thanks me, tucks the Tortorici under his arm, and races back up the stairs. Seconds later he’s joining me in the yard, stumbling through the open sliding-glass door with a guitar in each hand, a pair of soon-to-be victims. He’s followed by Ethan, Piper, and Trina, and we’re all at the edge of the grass where a low rock wall hems in my yard.
I lift an ordinary wooden guitar high over my head, then nod at Jeremy. He can play master of ceremonies better than I can.
“It’s not the end of high school until someone smashes a guitar,” he shouts, holding his arms up in a victory sign. “That’s a very famous saying, you know.” Then to me, “The floor is yours.”
I proceed to whack the living daylights out of the guitar to the encouraging cheers of my fellow classmates. Jeremy and Ethan join in, and even Piper bashes an old, cheap acoustic against the rocks. Trina jumps into action, her hazel eyes alive with the prospect of destruction, because Trina was a wild child in high school, and a wilder child in college and medical school too, and an even wilder adult now that she is smack-dab in the middle of her residency.
As I look down at the destruction—wooden shards everywhere, strings popped loose and languishing—I feel a trickle of endorphins, not like I just struck out the side but like I lobbed one good curveball. It’s a lift, a momentary, temporary lift, a rising above this hazy line I’ve been living on.
But the problem is it’s not enough to blot this all out, to quiet the whole wide world. It’s not enough to bring back the sounds of Cole Porter being played, or flowers being planted, or of requests for a five-letter word starting with A or T or C or anything. Nothing is ever enough. Except Holland, who’s tattooed all over me, but who’s not here where I want her. I walk away from the carnage and return to the house. Trina follows, all lithe and pantherlike as she pads across the hardwood floors in her bare feet.
“Let’s go to your room,” she whispers in my ear.
I nod, take her hand, and lead her up the stairs. I hear the noises from outside, the splashing and the laughing, the sounds of cans opening and voices rising in the celebratory din of the end of an era, and then it fades when I close my door, crank up some tunes, and turn off the lights, leaving on a lamp by the side of my bed. Trina already has her top off, and she’s pulling off my T-shirt, and the room’s feeling fuzzy and warm, just the way I like it, because Dr. Trina gave me some new pills to try tonight. They’ve kicked in for me, and maybe for her, and everything, everything, just feels better when you’re doing it on PKs.
She’s already pinned me, my arms stretched above my head, her hands on my wrists, her black hair falling all around my face. I’m never on top with Trina, but that’s okay. She likes it this way, and it’s easier, and she’s never not hot. She’s always ready, she’s always racing, and she’s always got her hands all over, and it’s great, really, it’s great.
Even though she’s not Holland.
I curse silently.
I’d like to not think about Holland when I’m with someone else. I’d like to not picture Holland—her wavy blond hair, her sky-blue eyes, her lips tasting like strawberry, her smell—all girl, all pure, perfect, blond California girl.
But I can’t not picture Holland.
So I close my eyes and go with it, imagining it’s Holland holding me down. And it feels fantastic like that with imaginary Holland. It feels like I’m alive again, like I’m real again, like the earth is rotating around the sun again.
Then we’re done, and Trina conks out in thirty seconds flat. Her face is pressed against my sheet; she doesn’t even make it to a pillow. I watch her doze for a minute. Sometimes I think with every breath her brain is releasing all the X-rays and EKGs and patient reports she had to keep in her head all day. Sometimes I imagine her waking up next to a sea of warped, distorted readouts that have sort of melted out of her.
A strand of her long hair falls over her mouth. Her lips flutter while she’s sleeping, trying to blow the hair away. I adjust her hair for her, tucking the strand behind her ear. Then I nod off too, not thinking about the people outside or the broken guitars. When I wake up in the middle of the night, my dog is wedged against me, and Trina is gone. But the good doctor has left something for me.
A fresh orange bottle of pills on my nightstand.
I’ll need them to get through my graduation tomorrow. My mom was supposed to be in the front row.
I always imagined that the morning before graduation would pass by in a blur of noise and barked orders. Did you remember this? Did you forget that? Fix your hair; it’s a mess.
Like when Laini graduated. My dad grabbing his camera, my mom making sure Laini’s cap was on right, me calculating how long I’d have to wear the striped polo shirt with the collar.
Now, as I pull on shorts and a T-shirt since it doesn’t matter what you wear under the robe—because I refuse to call it a gown—the only sound I hear comes from Sandy Koufax, from her nails clicking against the floor as she switches locations, shifting from her early-morning yard patrol to her late-morning lounge-around-on-the-couch relaxation.
We didn’t even have Sandy Koufax six years ago when we raced out of the house for Laini’s graduation, the last time we were all together—my mom, my dad, my sister, and me. That evening we went out to dinner in Chinatown at a restaurant Laini had researched because it had the best traditional Chinese dumplings, she said. She had already started down the path of reconnecting with her roots, so she ordered for all of us in Chinese too because she’d been studying the language.
“That’s my girl,” my dad said, then planted a kiss on Laini’s forehead. She pretended to be cool and aloof, but she leaned into him, then responded in Chinese, and he laughed, then said something back. He had learned Chinese over the years, had taken classes, listened to Chinese podcasts, and had all the Learn Mandarin CDs in his car. My mom and I didn’t know a word.
When the food arrived, my mom held up her glass and offered a toast. “To my daughter. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Then my dad. “To more education, which is Latin for… more bills.”
“Sorry I didn’t get a scholarship,” Laini said, and my dad immediately corrected himself. He never wanted Laini to feel bad about anything—fight with a friend, crummy grade, crappy haircut. Whatever it was, he’d save the day for her, even if he was the one who’d been sarcastic.
“I’m just kidding,” he said. “Of course we’ve got the money.”
“I’ll go to state school,” I offered, my contribution to the conversation.
“You’re such a suck-up,” Laini said to me.
My mom held out her hands. “Enough. Can we just have a nice dinner out?”
“How about a redo?” my dad said, and held up his glass. “To Laini Kellerman, who we are happily sending to college.”
“Much better,” my mom said, and nodded.
Laini held up her Coke and offered a toast. “To the end of an era.”
Laini turned out to be a fortune-teller. A month later my dad was killed when he was hit by a truck in Kyoto. A year later my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Six years later, Laini doesn’t even send me a graduation card.
My doorbell rings, and Sandy Koufax erupts in a flurry of barks from her post on the couch. When I answer the door, Holland’s there. I tell myself to be stoic, especially since she’s still wearing that star ring I gave her last summer. I hunted it down for her at a funky little clothing store on Melrose Avenue, since I knew that’s where Holland liked to shop, where she loved to pick up cheap, little plastic bracelets and other jewelry.
“What?” She puts her hands on her hips and gives me a playful look as if I should have remembered she was going to be here. Fact is, I’m pretty sure she did tell me she was coming by. Maybe I didn’t want to believe it. Maybe I made myself forget, even though she’s been around the house a few times since she finished up her freshman year at the University of California at San Diego. She stopped by with Kate a week ago and brought me that homemade lasagna that she’d cooked herself, since Holland has a magic touch with pasta. “You didn’t think I was going to let you get ready for graduation all by yourself, did you?”
“Pretty sure I can get ready by myself.”
“Well, it’s not like I brought makeup or five different outfits for you to choose from,” she says, and lets herself in. It’s just us alone in my house. I could shut the door and pull the blinds and watch movies on the couch with her all day. We could hole up here and never leave, just Holland and the dog and me. Order Chinese takeout from Captain Wong’s around the corner for every meal. Yes, this is how I could get through an endless summer on a lonely planet.
Holland peers down the hall. “Where’s you-know-who?”
“Who would that be?”
She waves a hand dismissively. I know she means Trina. I just want her to say it. I want to know she’s bothered by the hot doctor who hangs out at my house.
“Dr. Asvati,” Holland says, drawing out the name, like it’s an insult. Maybe it is to her.
“Trina,” Holland repeats, the word heavy in her mouth. She’s jealous. She has to be jealous. This is excellent. I would like her to be jealous.
“She’s not here.”
“She’s not coming to your graduation?”
I shake my head. Trina and I don’t have that kind of relationship.
Holland walks to the living room and sits down next to my dog. She pets Sandy Koufax’s ears and talks to my dog in a high-pitched voice, telling her she is the cutest dog in the whole wide world. Sandy Koufax rolls over and lets Holland pet her belly. Seeing the two of them like that, the girl who likes the dog, and the dog who likes the girl, makes me want to blurt out the invitation: Let’s shack up here all summer and not leave until August. Maybe she’d feel sorry enough for me to say yes, to stay, to say leaving me last fall was the dumbest thing she ever did and will you please take me back?
Why yes, Holland, I think I would take you back. Even though I don’t have a single clue as to the secret of why you left me in the first place.
Holland points to my cap on the coffee table. “This cap thing. Pretty sure it’s supposed to go on your head.”
“That’s what all the graduation how-to books say.”
She grabs the cap and walks back to me. She hands me the mortarboard and I put it on, far back on my head.
“That’s all wrong.” Holland laughs, shakes her head, as if this is normal, as if she can just slide into the way we used to be good buds before last summer, before everything else. “It’s supposed to sit on your forehead.” She mimics pulling a mortarboard down on her forehead, pointing to this spot right above her eyes where the cap is supposed to rest.
“Fix it,” I say, and it comes out raspy, like a croak. I know I should say please fix it or can you fix it? but this is all I can manage, this two-word admission, as I do everything not to sound hungry for her.
“See! You did need me to get ready,” she says, then looks at me, half-nervous, like she’s waiting for an answer, waiting for me to admit I needed her.
I just point to the cap. She nods, then wiggles the cap farther down my forehead. Her fingers brush against my face. My heart pounds a tick louder at her touch, but I look away, because the ache is too much. She pulls my cap down for a final tug, then stops to consider a strand of my brown hair. “I can’t believe my mom didn’t make you get a haircut for your graduation.”
“Yeah, oddly enough she doesn’t really control my hair.”
“She thinks she controls everything,” Holland says, and rolls her eyes like she’s trying to invite me back into the teasing, to the way we make light of Kate and her tendencies. I say nothing, and Holland absently taps the silver chain on her neck that she wears every day. There’s a small circle hanging from it and the name SARAH is engraved on it. Sarah was Holland’s friend from college who died a few months into their freshman year. Then Holland says softly, “You always look so nice when you get your hair cut.”
“Do you want me to get a haircut?” I want to kick myself the second the words come out.
“Your hair looks great. So does the rest of your ensemble,” she says, gesturing to my cap and robe. “Mom will approve too.” She catches herself. “Sorry. I meant my mom.”
“It’s okay. I know what you mean.”
“Do you miss her today?”
“I miss her every day,” I say instantly, relieved that someone has asked, that someone wants to know.
“Of course. That was stupid to ask.”
“You can ask. You’re the only one who does,” I say, because after two months, the condolences are running out, and it’s as if my mom is being erased from the world again as the memory of her fades and we all start to forget. But Holland’s asking, Holland’s remembering, and I want to grab her and tell her, Everything hurts, and I can’t stand the hurting. Instead my hand lifts a few inches, like it has a mind of its own and wants to touch her, to connect with her through words and skin. But I don’t go that far. I can’t stand the hurting.
“I miss her too. I miss planting flowers with her, and I miss going to the farmers’ market with her, and I miss looking at all those bulb catalogs with her,” Holland says, and my heart rises in my throat because Holland hasn’t forgotten either. She hasn’t forgotten a thing. “And now the cymbidium, the boat orchids in front of your house? The ones I planted with her last summer? They need to be trimmed.”
“She would have done that. She would have trimmed them around now.”
I can see it so clearly. I can picture my mom outside the house, wearing jeans and a T-shirt because she was a jeans-and-a-T-shirt kind of mom, planting the orchids last summer, hoping she’d be here a year later to take care of them. Determined to be here a year later.
“Right. She would have,” I say quietly, then I steer away from all this, from these cracks in my chest that feel too much like feelings. “I don’t see why I have to go to graduation, though. My mom was the one who liked all these ceremonies and crap.”
Holland tilts her head to the side. “Do you want to skip it?”
I scoff. “What? Are you serious?”
“I am serious, Danny. If you want to skip graduation, I’ll cover for you.”
The idea entices me. “What would you say?”
“I don’t know. I’ll come up with something. I’ll pretend I’m you!”
“I mean it, though. If you need to escape or whatever, I’ll go out there right now and I’ll tell my mom you’re on your way, that you want to drive yourself. And we’ll go without you. And when they say your name, I’ll act like I have no idea where you are. Or I’ll get up and say you took the dog for a walk. Do you want me to?”
“You would do that?”
“You would really do that?”
“I would really do that. I would do that for you.”
She is serious. She will do this for me. I hate her for breaking me so many months ago, and I love her for wanting to cover for me today.
But this isn’t about Holland, and this isn’t about me. “I should go. For my mom.”
Holland nods. She knows this is what my mom was holding on for. Kate does too. Kate said it all the other day when I told her I didn’t want to go. Elizabeth loved ceremonies. Elizabeth loved events. This was the thing she was trying to live for. For the last five years, all she wanted was to make it to your graduation before she died. So get up there and give your valedictory speech so your mother, wherever she is, can hear you.
Kate doesn’t believe in heaven or the afterlife. My mom didn’t either. We’re Jews, and Jews don’t subscribe to the typical heaven or hell ideas. Kate does believe my mom is somewhere, maybe in limbo, maybe in spirit, waiting for this moment. Why, then, didn’t she hang on? I wish there were an answer, because I just don’t get why my mom could survive five years of remission and recurrence and come up eight weeks shy of the thing she held on for. But there’s no one here to ask. When my dad died, my mom was there to answer the unanswerable, to make sense of the fault line in our life—and we got through that somehow; we came out on the other side. Now I’m 0 for 2 and I don’t get any more pitches to swing at.
And so it must be time for my friend Vicodin.
I slip into the kitchen to take a pill, and when I return to the hall, Holland gestures to the front door. “My mom and dad are waiting outside,” she says. “We’d better go.”
Then I’m piling into the car with them, driving to the place I’ll never have to step foot in after today, and I’m marching with the rest of the class, I’m sitting down listening to the principal, then he’s calling me to the stage for the final time. My last assignment; then high school will be behind me and college in front. Just one summer in between.
“Daniel Jon Kellerman, our valedictorian.”
I walk to the podium, take out my index cards, and look at my classmates in the first several rows. We all look like otters, just a fat sea of otters, with blond hair or brown hair or red hair, with tanned skin or black skin or white skin. They’re not the ones I want to see. There’s only one person I want to see in the audience. I even begged my mom at one point to hold on. Begged her like a little kid would do. A couple months ago when it was clear she was nearing the end, I pleaded, “June’s not that far away. You can do it, Mom.”
What a shit thing to do. What a shit thing to ask.
I worked my ass off through high school. I had my nose in all the books; I was not going to let valedictorian slip from my grasp. She knew I had a good shot, knew I was in contention. My son, the valedictorian. I pictured her saying it today, bursting with pride, with joy. It was like this thing I could give her, a last gift to her. But she doesn’t even know I pulled it off because I got the news I was top of the class three days after she became ash. And I’m flesh, and I don’t want to be here on this stage. I want to lie down on a raft, close my eyes, and let the little white pill take me away, float me off into the happy land where I feel no pain. It’s kicking in, and so the words I’m saying, sounds and syllables about this moment, about the future, don’t matter to me, and they don’t matter to all these people out here in the audience. My words don’t change how they see me.
The dad was killed in an accident six years ago.
Then the mom died in April.
Remember the sister? She’s gone now; she took off for China years ago. Does anyone even hear from her?
They all think they know me. Because that’s all I am to them—that guy with the shitty luck.
I glance down at my index cards and do the thing they most want me to do. Because I can be that guy now. I can be mercurial. I can be fickle. I can be the guy who gets away with anything, and for the first time in months—years—I am grateful I have carte blanche to say whatever I want.
I stop reading. I rip the index cards in half and fling the severed blue remains up in the air.
“Fuck high school. Fuck everyone. I’m outta here.”
Let me tell you: You’ve never seen a standing ovation like that before.
My mom would have flipped out if she knew what I did. She would have gone ballistic and slapped me upside the head.
Not literally. She never hit me, obviously. But she would have given me all kinds of stern looks and disappointed glares. I did not raise you to tell your peers to fuck off, Daniel Kellerman.
She expected a lot of me. When I was in fourth grade working on a book report, she made me start the whole thing over when she read it and said it was barely even legible.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked her.
“It’s not good enough yet. You have to try harder,” she said, her voice gentle. “You have to try hard at everything you do. That’s all I ask.”
I rolled my eyes and revised it, and over time her approach wore off on me and I became like her too—wanting to do my best, expecting my best.
That’s why I can’t face Kate. She knew my mom better than anyone, and Kate probably wants to wallop me right now. Because I did the absolute opposite of what my mom would have expected or wanted. I leave Terra Linda before Kate can find me. I walk home, since it’s only a couple miles away, chucking my cap and robe into a trash can on a street corner, then I change into gym shorts when I get home and head to the garage, my dog following close behind as I park myself on the gym bench out here. Yeah, this is my life. Working out on graduation. What could be better than this?
But I don’t want to go to a party, and I don’t want to have some fancy meal at some fancy restaurant with people who are pissed at me, or people who feel sorry for me, or people who feel both, not to mention my own disgust at what the guy on the stage wearing my cap and gown just did.
Excerpted from When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney Copyright © 2013 by Daisy Whitney. Excerpted by permission.
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