There is an app that shows you where the Appolina is, how fast it is going, what the temperature is outside the pressurized doors, how many days it’s been traveling, an estimate of the time remaining until the ship touches down on Mars. My mother, who is a marine biologist, is one of the eight people onboard. The app updates every five seconds, though as the crew gets closer to landing it will takes longer and longer to load. I check the app throughout the day: in the mornings right after I wake up, in physics class from the back row, after I brush my teeth at night. While Steph and I sit in her living room painting our nails, I stop and stare at the little red dot that represents the Appolina, which shows that it is 4,600,000 miles away—about twenty times the distance between the Earth and the moon.
Steph peeks over my shoulder. “Jess, seriously. Again?”
I shrug, set my phone down, reach for my sketchbook. I draw wavy blue lines across the page: a depthless open sea.
Maps show that over 20 percent of Mars’ surface may have been oceans. There is evidence of shorelines carved into the surface by giant waves. One of these maps hangs in my mother’s home office. We would sit together and she would trace her fingers over the lowlands where there had once been rivers, where oceans may have foamed. Sometimes we stepped outside and she would point out where Mars sat in the sky, below a sickle of moon. It looks like a star, but brighter, with a yellow-orange hue. The color reminds me of the nightlight that I needed to sleep when I was small.
“What will we look like to you?” I asked her.
“From Mars,” she told me, “Earth will look like this too. Not as quite as yellow.”
Nothing more than a speck in the sky.
I am sketching Steph’s foot, wishing I had the right colors for the seashell pink of her toenail polish, when we hear car doors slam. I drop my pencil, as if I’ve just been caught doing something I shouldn’t. Steph and I look out the window from the couch where we sit in the living room. We can make out four cars and five boys piling out of each. They heave cases of beer out of the trunks. After being crunched in the back and middle car seats they step under the streetlights and stretch their long legs. Jokes and laughter carry across the yard to the open window, laughter that makes me think these aren’t their first beers. They are loud. They swear. They don’t care who hears. Steph’s border collie, Penny, runs circles around us on the sofa, barking so much I cover my ears. Even through my fingers, her pitch is high, shrill. Nothing has happened yet but I already know: these are the sounds of our night changing into something very different from what we had planned.
The boys are friends of Steph’s older brother, Kyle, who is home from UT Austin on spring break—he is in charge of the house while his and Steph’s parents are in Sacramento for the weekend. Kyle is first through the door, shouldering one of the cases of beer. He’s tall, like Steph, with eyes that shift from gray to blue depending on the color of his shirt, and his dark hair has grown long since he’s been away at school. He shakes it out of his eyes.
“Sup, Nooch?” he says. Steph frowns at the nickname. I sit up and smile. “Hey,” he says to me. I’ve spent many mornings barefoot at his kitchen table while his mother offers me more cereal. He had given me rides to school. But he’s never used my name. Jess, I want to shout after him. You know it’s Jess.
Before the rest of the boys file in, Steph and I arrange ourselves on opposite ends of the sectional and look at our phones so it doesn’t show we’ve been watching, craning our necks toward the French doors. But we have been watching these boys for years. Some of them pause outside the door to stomp dirt from their shoes. I know most of their names: Ryan, Matt, Dan, Luke, James, Jake, Dave, William, Bobby, Sean.
We have watched these boys score baskets in state championships, their sneakers squeaking across the waxed floors. We’ve watched them row little scull boats across the river with their long, muscled arms. We’ve watched them make tackles, cradle lacrosse sticks, send soccer balls rocketing past goalies’ hands. They never knew we were there, perched high in the wobbly wooden bleachers that roll out from the walls, hooking our fingers into chain-link fences during track meets until our hands smelled like metal and rust. They wouldn’t have known it was us huddled together in our coats along the river with the early morning cold making our eyes water so that some mornings we weren’t sure whether we weren’t actually starting to cry.
Some of them nod their hellos as they pass on their way to the kitchen.
“Hey ladies,” says Luke. Ladies. It’s the kind of thing they say to other girls, older girls. Girls who know how to contour their makeup and who click in high heels down the hall. Part of me is embarrassed at how little it takes for us to feel thrilled, but we still are. Ladies. This is a good sign.
After they’ve all filed into the kitchen, Steph grabs the top of my arm, presses her fingers into my skin. “Come on, Jess,” she hisses, and I follow her up the stairs.
My father and mother met when they were both in graduate school at Harvard. He’s a heart surgeon. I think he always counted on being the more accomplished one in the marriage. My mother was respectable enough to marry but her field must have seemed safely obscure. He probably figured that she was too specialized to ever be a threat. He didn’t count on her getting a lot of attention, awards. He didn’t count on her diving under the ice in Antarctica. He didn’t count on the call from NASA, the dinner invitation from the president last spring, the press interviews in LA, her appearances on the late night talk shows in New York. He didn’t count on her making history, on her name being printed in books—on her being one of the first, the thing that can never be taken back.
We had a party before she left for Mars, and after a few drinks some of Dad’s friends gave him a present, something the size of a shirt box, tied up with a red satin bow.
“ This doesn’t look like a nine iron,” he said, shaking it, looking up to make sure everyone laughed at his joke. He tore through the wrapping. In the box was an apron, which made everyone laugh harder. “Why don’t you just trade your scalpel for a spatula, Bob?” said Ames, a vascular surgeon he has known since their residency days. Dad’s face went red and I saw him look to the corner where the CEO of the hospital stood, sipping a beer, but he couldn’t do anything but chuckle it off, slap Ames on the back. I watched him swallow the rest of his drink in one big gulp.
Later that night I heard a slamming noise in the kitchen, and the sound of shattering glass. In the morning when I went for a drink of water the cabinet door was hanging from a single hinge and the countertop glistened with shards. This was unusual for him. My father’s anger is a surgeon’s anger, as precise as the laser he uses to cut into the delicate veins that lead to someone’s heart.
My mother used to measure my height every year on my birthday and mark it on the wall in the kitchen, next to the sliding glass door. Before she left she insisted we do it again, to cover the two years she would be gone.
“I’m done growing,” I told her. “You saw the reads from my physical this year. My growth plates are fused.”
“Just in case,” she says. “Doctors don’t know it all.” She winked. This was our joke. She pulled a stool across the floor so that she could stand over me.
Before she left she was eating as much fruit as possible, knowing she would have to go years without fresh produce, and during those last few weeks before her mission she always smelled like apple, cherry, watermelon. Her fingers and lips were stained purple from blackberries. She tells me that fruit used to have seasons, before it was grown in the labs. I like to picture the raspberry bushes out in the wild, the fruit ripening in the sun.
Using her hand as a level, she dragged a pencil in a line a few inches above my head, traced it again and again until it became a thick gray line. When she stepped down from the stool a tear leaked from her eye.
We are only able to talk while she’s on her way to Mars and then on her way back to Earth in two years. Each time we talk on our video conference calls during her journey, the lag will grow greater, until there are entire minutes between what is said and what is heard. By the time the Appolina lands, we will only be able to use email. I will watch her interviews on the news, the speech she made at the summit for Women in STEM last year. I’m stockpiling the links now so that by the time she lands I will have ways to see her in motion and to hear the sound of her voice. I think of the end of her speech, the clip that was played again and again on the news: Serve your passion. Find your mission. Let your hunger and your drive and your knowledge shape the adventure that will be your life. Let it take you as far as you can possibly go. I’ll never forget it: the auditorium boomed with applause, and when she looked down at me from the stage, and as everyone clapped and whistled for her I felt her leaving. I felt the world cheering for her, cheering for her and willing her away.
In the bathroom Steph searches through her makeup bag, a pink zippered pouch crammed full of crumbling blushes and lipsticks she’s periodically stolen from her mom. She rustles through the bag, then lays out an eyelash curler, a tube of lipgloss. Compacts of eye shadow and bronzer clack together, and she pulls out a stub of eyeliner, then a purple plastic lighter. She flicks the lighter and runs the tip of the eyeliner through the flame.
“It makes you look sexier when it is smudged,” she says. “Like you’ve just gotten out of bed with someone.” She blows on it once, then runs the pencil along her eyelashes, draws it out past her eyes like wings. After, one side is much longer than the other. She turns to me, pinches my chin between her hands, and I feel the warm tip at the corner of my eye.
Steph traces a line around my eyes until they started watering.
“Hold still, Jess.” She slaps me hard enough on the thigh so it leaves a tingle in the shape of her hand. When she’s finished we study ourselves in the mirror. She pouts at herself approvingly. I look squinty. Something about all that black makes my irises shrink to little dark beads. I realize, too late, that this has probably been her plan all along—to make me look bad. We are both virgins, though Steph says she has reached into the pants of her ex-boyfriend Phillip, from her old school, though I’m not sure I believe her. I have only kissed three boys, and one of them was someone I met at a science fair in D.C., which Steph tells me means I shouldn’t talk about him at all. We have been friends since the fifth grade, but Steph is always making sure to suck up to the cool girls in our grade—Jennifer O’Neil, Julie Wagner, Lorrie Montgomery. She lets Lorrie copy her homework, lends Jennifer Chapsticks knowing she’ll never get them back, laughs too loudly at Julie’s jokes in class. I know that she’s frustrated with me and the way that I’m always too nervous to do things like skip school and message boys. I know I should change, but I can’t. I don’t know how to act like those girls: loud, laughing, brave.
Penny is barking in the hall, and I can hear her long tail swishing against the walls. Steph goes out to get her, hooks a finger around her collar, leads her downstairs to the basement, where she puts her into her metal crate heaped with old flannel sheets. While she’s gone I take a tissue and wipe some of the makeup off. Before I leave the bathroom I check the app to see where the Appolina is and hold my finger over the dot that represents the craft. It is Day 61 of the journey. I like the feeling that I can trace them. Sometimes I imagine that my mother will sense my attention, my touch. On Day 68 she will open one of the surprises I packed for her—an envelope packed with sketches I made of her when she tried on the first prototype of her suit. A study of her hands, one in her glove, one out. Her body in profile as she first learned how to walk in those giant boots. How delicate her face looked in the perfect circle of her helmet before she lowered the shield, the wisp of blonde hair that fell across her forehead. The softness of her cheek stood out in all that gear, something you want to reach up and touch.
“Tell me again,” I asked her after each of her tests, “what it’s like to feel weightless?”
“It feels like your body is a secret,” she said. Another time she told me it was “like being invisible.” Another: “like being underwater and never having to come up.”
In the kitchen, Steph and I find a box of beer cans, the cardboard torn on the side so that it gapes darkly, like a mouth. She cracks her beer open quickly, tips her head back for her first sip, tosses her hair. My beer sends up a spurt of foam that wets my hands and leaves a dark mark on my shirt. I have to brace myself for each sip. Kissing, beer—none of it is what I imagined it would be. I hate the taste of beer, and kissing only makes me feel concern. I worry about bumping teeth, too much spit, where to put my hands.
One of the boys, James, who we’d watched row in the men’s varsity eight, crosses the kitchen toward us. I think he notices the way we tolerate only the smallest sips of our beers by the way he smiles. He can tell we hate it. He is wearing a tie dyed shirt, the kind of ugly thing these sorts of boys wear to show off how much it doesn’t matter—even the most stupid clothes can’t cover up the aura around them, that they are always having fun, the sense that they are in on every joke.
“You ladies want something special?” There’s that word again: ladies. It starts to feel like some kind of code. He opens the freezer drawer and pulls out a bottle of vodka. The glass is cloudy with cold, a Russian name branded across it in bright red writing. The astronaut on the label has the shield of his helmet flipped up so that you can see his eyes as he floats through space. I want to laugh, to point out that he’d be dead in a half second if he did something like that. Steph must have known, because before I can say it she elbows me in the ribs.
“Thanks, James,” Steph says. She touches his arm. I can’t believe the boldness. Probably those few sips of beer have already made her brave. I can tell that he likes the touch, too. The little sister a bit more brazen than she was last year. It’s the kind of thing that the magazines always tell you to do: Be Bold and Leave Him Begging for More. The kind of thing I can’t remember whenever a boy is within twenty feet. I make a note to myself—it will be my mission for the night, to touch one of these boys on the arm. But even looking around and wondering which one makes me blush.
Steph spins a lazy Susan underneath the counter, finds a can of pineapple juice. We use it to cut the vodka, and the sweetness is a relief from the dull sourness of the beer. I follow Steph out into the living room, where the boys have set up triangles of red plastic cups, and we listen to the constant pock of a ping-pong ball bouncing against the rims. We share an arm of the couch, but it’s hard to balance. I can’t seem to sit right. We do what we always do. Watch. The boys toss the ball back and forth, back and forth. We watch them yell and laugh. Droplets of beer splash over us, into our hair. We tally the points they score. I know it should be different than this. Women have been president, women are on their way to Mars. And still, I don’t know how to rise from the couch, to take from this moment, this night, any part of it that seems like it could be mine.
Steph and I finish our drinks. The liquor has made my face feel hot, but other than that, I don’t feel different just yet.
“You want to do our refills?” Steph asks. As I stand up, she adjusts herself, using the extra room to sit with her back arched, her chest pushed out. She flips her hair. I think how some girls already know what to do. Girls like my mother, who grow up knowing they want to seek signs of water on other planets, oceans that are billions of years old. Girls like Steph, who seem to know exactly how long to leave their fingertips on the inside of a man’s wrist.
When I make my way back into the kitchen, Dan is sitting on the counter, his feet resting on the island, presiding over it all. He wears shorts and has long legs full of golden blond hair. He was the captain of the soccer team last year. I remember him making the first goal in the state championship against Sacred Heart. He has the most perfect teeth I’ve ever seen, and a smile that seems to say he already knows this about himself.
“Excuse me,” I say. I stare at the cracks in the floor, which are lined with crumbs and bits of dog hair.
“You have to pay the toll.” He holds out his hand for a high five. I slap my hand, a little too hard, against his.
“Okay, tiger!” he laughs. I am surprised by the way he presses back, lets his palm linger in mine, the thick fingers. I think of the three boys I have kissed, the ones I have slow danced with in the gymnasium on homecoming, how their hands felt as small and soft as girls’. I have never touched such a big hand before, other than my father’s. This is something, I think, a start. That someone with a man’s hands has reached for mine.
I measure out two shots of vodka for me and Steph, cover it with juice. I feel the soccer player watching, so I spill a little more vodka into each of our cups until the color of our drinks pales into a watery yellow. I hope this makes me look like Steph: brave. He is still watching, even as I walk away. There are ways of walking, I think, for moments like this. You see it in the movies. Even some of the older girls at school. But I don’t know it. I look at the floor, trying not to trip.
Steph sips her drink. “Jesus,” she says. “We’re going to be plastered.” Plastered, I think. I take a few sips, glancing into the kitchen. The soccer player stares back at me. He gives me a thumbs up. I gulp down two big sips. Plastered. All of the sudden it sounds like something to aspire to. I feel like I’ve done something right.
If there were an app for my mother to follow me through the night, the little red dot of me moving across the screen, it would speed up after I get to the bottom of that second cup. That’s when I feel it. That’s when I become brave. The little dot would get a little bigger, brighter. There would be some sort of glow.
With the third drink, the little dot would zoom across the screen, dip and loop. It would show me moving from the couch into the middle of the room, the soccer player next to me. There is music blasting from the speakers. We are dancing. I’ve said something funny but I forget what it is the second it leaves my mouth. The soccer player smirks, and I wish he would laugh. Then we are outside, under the stars, and through the glass I can still hear the others whistle when we start to kiss. His tongue is hot and salty. Then I am in a lawn chair, in his lap. He moves my hand over a hard place in his shorts. At no point do I look up, toward the stars, toward the rest of the galaxy, toward the moon my mother hurtled past nearly two months ago.
Then, after the third drink, my app might be having connectivity problems. A loss of contact, a server that cannot be reached.
The rest of the night: we go back inside, and I can still feel the cold on my fingertips. There is a hiss of more beer cans being opened. Steph steps behind me, whispers in my ear. “Talk to him.” Someone pours beer into the dog bowl, and someone else lowers himself to the ground to drink it. There are red plastic cups on every counter, on every table. There is the constant thop of ping-pong balls landing in cups. I do a shot with the soccer player and it is warm in the back of my throat. Afterwards he places his hand on the small of my back.
“My mother is going to Mars,” I tell him.
“You’ve said that four times.”
“Well, she is.” I worry because he sounds mad. No more mother, I tell myself. No more Mars. One of the boys leans in to the soccer player, says something I can’t hear. When he steps away, the soccer player asks how old am I. When I tell him—the truth, I can’t even think to lie—he puts his lips to my ear.
“Well, you sure don’t kiss like you’re fifteen.”
Then we are in the basement. After the flush of the drinking, the cool dark, the cinderblock walls, are a relief. The old couch smells musty, and the afghan draped over the back scratches my skin. Penny cries from her crate. I look down at my pale body and wonder, how strange it felt to be naked in front of someone else. I am watching myself, my body, his hands on it, quick and sure. When he puts his fingers inside me I bite my lip. I don’t tell him that it hurts.
He tells me what he wants, what I should do. I tell him I’m not sure.
“Yes you are,” he says. “You wanted to all night.” I listen to how he wants me to use my hands, my mouth. I close my eyes and try not to listen to the noises he makes, the grunts and moans that don’t seem to be in his voice. I concentrate on the way the carpet feels rough on my knees, the way the air feels cool on my back. Then comes the moment that must have been the flash, blooming in the dark, a flower of light. The afterimage of it on my eyelids.
“What was that?”
“ Just keep going.” His hands, those big hands, on the back of my head. The dog, sensing us there, our movements, still crying through the dark.
I wake up to my phone dinging. My father is out front to pick me up. I am asleep on the basement floor, and the smell of dust is close and choking. I see the soccer player nearby, curled on the futon. I stand over him. I’m not sure what to do, what happens now. In the movies there is usually breakfast, coffee. There is usually some kind of goodbye. I see blood has dried on the rim of his nail, a crescent of red. I look around for water, something to wipe it away. I lick my finger. It seems important, to get rid of the blood on him. I don’t even care if he wakes up, if my father has to wait.
My phone dings again. Hurry up, my father says. I have to be at the hospital by noon. I take one last look at the finger and pray no one else sees. At the foot of the steps Penny looks up at me from her cage. I touch my hand to the cold of her nose through the bars then I creak, quiet as a secret, up the basement stairs. I hurry out the door, past the shapes of sleeping boys on the sofas, on the floor. The room is strewn with last night’s wreckage: pizza boxes and chip bags on the coffee table, red cups and empty cans on every surface: the kitchen counter, the fireplace mantel, the window sills. I wince as a can crunches under my feet just before I slip out the door.
If my father notices anything: the reek of liquor, the circles under my eyes, some kind of change, he doesn’t say. He has just eaten an apple and the core sits in the cup holder between our seats. The smell of it fills the car. My stomach churns as we drive home. I count backwards from one hundred, start over again. I close my eyes as we pass under the shade of the maples on our street. I never want the shade to end. I want to see where my mother is, but I don’t want to move. It hurts to blink. As I walk to the front door I realize I’ve left my bag at Steph’s. Sketchbook. Pencils. Clothes.
In my room I hear the jangle of my father’s keys, and front door pulled shut. In an hour my father will be performing his surgery: the patient is a three-year-old girl. He will look into her heart with a scope the size of a pencil tip and repair a defect in her aortic valve. I get in bed, pull my comforter over my head, enjoying the soft weight of it, and I sleep.
In chemistry class we learned that the first camera flashes were miniature explosions. Photographers produced flashes using a combination of magnesium powder and potassium chlorate, placed on the end of a stick and ignited. There are many stories about photographers being disfigured or even killed in pursuit of a portrait. They suffered festering burns and their arms were tattered with scars. Serves them right. There are days when I’ve thought that.
When I wake up three hours later, I am certain there must have been some kind of catastrophe. My screen is filled with text messages. Asking if I’ve seen, if I’ve heard. I am too panicked to read the rest. I am sure that it must be my mother—there was a crack in the plug door, they lost oxygen, the pressure onboard suddenly dropped. Or there’s been an explosion, a collision, an asteroid, but I can’t tell. I picture a flash of light, debris hurtling through the galaxy, pieces of the Appolina drifting in every direction. Toward Pluto, toward the sun. When I open the tracking app my hands are shaking, but the dot is there, but I can’t tell if it’s still moving. They’ve got over 100 days until they will reach Mars. I check NewsFlash. Nothing. I call the hospital, where they tell me my father is still in surgery. My voice cracks with fear when I speak the commands into my phone.
I call NASA—there is someone we can talk to, kids like me, the ones left behind on earth. A counselor was assigned to each family, and we are supposed to talk to them when we need help.
“Jess,” the woman says. “It’s nice to speak with you.”
“What happened to the ship?” I say.
She pauses. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“The Appolina. Is everything okay?”
Another pause. “Again, I’m not sure what you mean, Jess. You know you can follow the ship’s progress on the app, right? It will show you exactly where your mother is.”
I end the call after that.
I read the messages, all 54 of them. Three of them contain the picture of me. They are of my face, my mouth, my fingers. Doing what he taught me to. Some of the messages come from numbers I don’t even know. Blast off, one of the messages says. Another: Houston, we have a problem. Another: Mommy will be so proud.
The inventor of the synchronized camera flash, Artur Fischer, came up with a system which triggered the flash at the same time the camera’s shutter was released. Fischer was photographing his newborn daughter when he came up with the idea. I’ve been tempted to tell myself that this is all her fault.
Later I’ll see the time stamp on the emails and the ZipPic posts. Four minutes. That’s how long it took for the picture to go from the email chain to ZipPic to who knows how many people in school. The soccer captain sent it to Steph’s brother. Steph’s brother sent it first to Steph. From there, it traveled like a comet through the atmosphere, uncontrolled. It was posted on the Slut Pages for the suburbs of Houston. Last year Jenny Nelson’s boyfriend posted a nude selfie she sent him after they got into a fight at our homecoming dance. Jenny and I went to middle school together. I liked her, and she always smiled at me in the halls. I was sorry when she transferred to another school.
I call Steph three times before she picks up. She doesn’t say hello.
“I was grounded,” she says. “For a month. And it’s because of you, you stupid whore.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. My voice shakes.
“The barf in the pool table,” she says. “You’re disgusting in more ways than one.” I don’t know what she means, for a minute. Then I remember: staggering over the pool table and throwing up in the pocket. I remember seeing the dark stains splatter the felt.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “We drank too much.”
“You drank too much. I was fine. And I can’t believe you did that with Dan. You never even met him before.”
She hangs up before I can say anything more. I think of Steph leaning over me with the melted tip of her eyeliner, covering my eyes in black.
On Monday I see Steph in the hall before homeroom, standing at Julie Wagner’s locker. I wonder if she’s still angry, and I take a step toward them but they lean their heads together, giggling. As I pass, Steph sticks her foot out, and I stagger, trip, my books slipping out of my arms.
“A slut,” Julie says as she passes. “And a klutz too. Jesus Christ.” And, as with all of Julie’s jokes, it is Steph’s laugh that is the loudest, and the sound of it follows me down the hall.
The first digital photograph was taken in 1957. It was 176 x 176 pixels. The pictures would have been so blurry that even behind the lens, there was still somewhere to hide. You were safe from the horrible precision that could reveal every eyelash and freckle, every smudge of makeup on pale skin.
At school, people torment me. The girls, mostly. Julie, Lorrie, Jennifer, Steph. They treat it like game. The point is to run up behind me in the hall, pull my hair, repeat names—bitch, slut, whore, cunt—right in my ear while gripping my ponytail, a hank of my hair. Then they move away, quick as whispers, so I can never turn around and see their faces. I try to tell myself they are angry because I got what they wanted. The soccer player, his movie star smile. But I know that’s not true. I know that I’m not proud. I know that when I think of what happened, I don’t feel what the magazines say you should feel: bold and sexy and brave. I feel tricked. I feel stupid. I feel so ashamed.
The same boys who mime blowjobs with pens and pencils in the middle of algebra now send me texts late at night, asking me to come over. All kinds of messages come from every angle: Emails. Strangers on ZipPic, Steph and Lorrie and Julie, ghosting under different profiles. The soccer player’s ex-girlfriend, Amy, is still at my school, a senior now. Kill yourself, she texts me, every morning and every night. Her messages come at the same time every day, like an alarm. Once when she passed by in the cafeteria, she leaned in close as I ate my sandwich.
“Stupid bitch,” she said. “I hope you choke.“
What I now realize: that everyone I know has the capacity to turn on their heels, to hate me, even if they never spoke to me before. They’ll hate you, even if you think there isn’t enough about you to hate. It turns out to be the easiest thing in the world.
You liked that, didn’t you? the texts say. You want more.
Who are you? I say. They’ve screened their numbers, but I can guess. Jennifer uses all capital letters. Julie swears the most. And Steph knows how to scare me. What if your mother sees this picture? What would she say if she sees? I would drop my phone into a gutter if it weren’t for my mother.
For the first week after the photo spread, I hardly have time to refresh the app, to see where she is, before another message comes in. Slut slut slut. I block each number. Still, the messages come.
My father hopes to be promoted to chief of surgery at his hospital before my mother comes home. He leaves for work before I wake up, comes home after I’ve rinsed my dinner plate clean. He sits at the kitchen table, looks at charts and files, rubs his chin. He does not notice anything. I have stopped doing my homework. I have stopped going out. I sleep from eight at night until eight in the morning. I don’t wash my hair. He doesn’t know how I want to be weightless. That I want to go underwater and never come up.
The soccer player. His winter break must be over. He must be back at school. I imagine him throwing a football across a quad, cramming for a test in a library behind a fortress of books. I picture him ordering a coffee in a café with big windows and overstuffed chairs. Laughing. Leaning in to kiss a girl in a dark bar. A girl who knows the rules, who knows how this goes. Not a girl like me. It feels as if everyone has managed to stand on this ice-covered lake, but when I took my first steps, it cracked apart beneath my feet.
My mother and I have our Day 68 video chat. She opens the envelope full of the sketches I made. It’s like a time capsule of my life has been sent through space. I wonder if she still smells the same. I’d like to think she smells of cherries, even though it is impossible, that the sweetness has clung underneath her nails, to her skin, her hair.
“These are so wonderful, Jess. I miss you so much.”
“I miss you too,” I say. I wonder if she feels what I feel when I say it. The same hard lump in her throat, the same ache.
“What’s new at school?” she asks.
“Nothing,” I tell her. “Everything is the same.” The delay in the video chat has increased to half a minute since the last time we spoke. I picture my words bouncing off of satellites, ringing through thousands of miles of dark, cold space, and how many inventions it has taken for us to be able to speak, for me to be able to see her face. But I have nothing to offer, nothing to say.
She narrows her eyes at the camera. “Jess, is everything okay?”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m just tired.” Out of the corner of my eye I see my phone light up with another message. A screenshot from a porn video, something with black leather and chains. Slut. It says. You like this, don’t you? Freak. Slut. I would do anything to feel my mother’s cool, soft hands on my face.
“What are you working on? Show me more of your sketches,” she says. In the past two weeks I have not made anything new, not since I left my sketchbook at Steph’s. I picture her with her purple plastic lighter, all of the pages curling in the flame, crumbling into dark ash.
“My sketchbooks are at school, “I say.
“Oh,” she says. “Well, next time.” I swear I see something sad in her eyes, her smile, and I know it is my fault. I remember that look from her fifteenth anniversary, when my father called and said he would miss their dinner reservation. She picked up a slice of the pizza she had ordered for me, smiled at it, and I remember the little clicks of her pearls as she took them off and lay them on the kitchen table.
When we hang up I stare at the blank window on my screen, wishing it would fill up once again with her face. I know that all she wants is for me to be happy, and I can’t even give her that.
In the 1840s, a woman named Anna Atkins photographed plants—mostly algae and seaweed. Her images look like x-rays. One of her first photos, on cyanotype: "Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state; and in fruit." Roots and tendrils reach for the edge of the page, as if they are trying to escape. In class, I spend entire periods drawing plants like these on the margins of my assignments and tests, and when I run out of space, I use the backs of my hands, my arms, tracing the engorged pods of seeds, the long wavy grasses that she plucked from the sea.
After dinner—Day 71—I bring a pair of scissors into the bathroom. I listen to the slice of the metal against the silk of my hair and the long strands bend along the curve of the porcelain, like strands of Anna Atkins’ sea grass. I think of the way my mother would twist my hair into a rope and wrap it around her wrist. When I am done, there is very little left. Nothing for anyone to touch, to love. And nothing for anyone to pull.
The next nine days I spend making sketches to show my mother. I draw more grass, more seeds, but I want to show her something other than Anna Atkins’ plants. Then, in art class I find myself drawing the soccer player’s face. I make sure to hunch close over my work, so that no one else will see. I already know what they would say. Stalker, obsessed. Slut slut slut. Each picture takes up its own page. I draw the kitchen counter cluttered with cans of Keystone Light, the bottle of Russian vodka with its cartoon astronaut, the red plastic cups, the can of pineapple juice. I draw a single fingertip, shading the place where it was darkened by blood. I draw Steph, her eyes rimmed with makeup, flashing, excited, and a little bit mean, and on the next page, Penny curled in her crate, her tail touching her nose, warm in her sheets. I draw a girl, slim and pale, with long dark hair down her back. She is naked, revealed. A phone, the flash large like a firework across the pages. Then a whole page full of little phones and faces, no white space. Talk bubbles that all say it: slut. The girl’s face, her tired eyes. Her hair shorn close to her skull, ugly and uneven. More like a boy.
During our next video chat, I take a breath before the camera brings my face into focus.
My mother covers her mouth when she sees my hair.
“Jess,” she says. “What…”
I am shaking when I hold up the book. I show the drawings in reverse, starting with the one of myself, the short hair, the eyes fixed and tired and dull. I flip my way back in time, so that the last drawing is the one of the soccer player’s face, his movie star smile, as though it were that easy to bury it all, to take it all back.
When I rest my sketchbook in my lap I’m thankful for the lag, for the millions of miles, the countless satellites, the extra thirty seconds that now comes between each sentence we finish and when the other one hears. I am so thankful for the time that stretches, silent, peaceful, between my mother’s nod of understanding and the sounds that I hear when she drops her head to her hands and starts to cry.