November 28, 2013
Six weeks since she died. Forty-two days since I left our cockroach-friendly walkup in West Philly and moved out to the Main Line with Aunt T. One thousand and eight hours since my thoughts were taken hostage, all available gray matter held at gunpoint by that day. By what really happened.
Sometimes for like ten seconds, twenty on a good day, I forget. For those few winks I’m like “Hey, life isn’t so bad. I have my own room. Munchies in the fridge.TV.”But then the thing is back. And I pick it open again. Let it bleed.
I’m in my new school, picking the scab, replaying the events of Mom’s last day for the bazillionth time, nowhere near to occupying the same planet as the rest of the Haverford student body, the planet of perky blondes and brunettes where I’m the only girl slipping through the halls in combat boots and a thrift-store dress, when someone taps my shoulder.
“Hel-lo! Earth to Faith!”
I whirl around as if expecting, what—the Kensington strangler? It’s just Anj of course, my one and only friend in this place, maybe in any place. She stands outside of the biology room, her hazel eyes wide, a honey-colored ringlet sprung loose from her ponytail.
“Ohmigod,” Anj pants.“New boy. Fresh meat. Just showed up today.” She waggles her eyebrows. “You’ve been here four weeks now. Maybe you can offer to show him the ropes.”
Before I can protest, she drags me through the door to sixth-period Bio and tilts her head toward the second row where a shaggy blond in serious need of a haircut is hunched over his desk listening to an iPod. I pass down the aisle and steal a quick peek at New Boy: t-shirt, jeans, skater-dude-slacker kind of vibe.
“Well?” Anj asks, nudging me in the ribs. “What do you think?”
I sink into my seat and let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding. “Not interested,” I murmur.
Anj smacks my shoulder, the one she practically dislocated when we met last August at a Judo class at the Y and got assigned as sparring partners.“Come on, Sweetpea, a little action would be good for you. You know—take your mind off stuff.” The bell rings. Mrs. Lopez, who’s been teaching longer than I’ve been alive, steps to the front of the class holding a lipstick-stained Styrofoam coffee cup. “Class is starting!” she calls out over the noise, saving me from having to respond. I try to rally the synaptic troops, try to bully my brain off Mom and focus instead on Biology, my favorite class. “Okay,”Mrs. Lopez says, setting her cup on a pile of books.
She taps a pen against her palm and paces the room. “Today we start our end-of-term projects with a unit on genetic ethics.” The use of the words end of term and projects in the same sentence provokes more than a few groans. Mrs. Lopez ignores the dissent and continues. “As you know, scientists are studying and learning about new genes all the time. This is the frontier; a scientific revolution. Who knows what will happen by the time you’re my age. Designer babies? Gene therapy to change your height? Your eye color? What if I could tell you your complete genetic makeup?” Mrs. Lopez pauses and looks at Chrissy Mueller, slumped over her desk half asleep.“Chrissy, what if I could tell you that you have the Huntington’s disease gene?”
“Huh?” Chrissy yawns, sitting up and rubbing her eyes.
A few kids laugh. Mrs. Lopez silences them with a look and a wave of her hand.“Carlos, what if you have the Alzheimer’s gene? Jen, diabetes? Would you want to know? What if you have a gene that makes you prone to addiction, paranoia?”
My breath catches. It’s not like I haven’t spent half my life worrying I’m going to become a junkie like my mom, but still, the idea of an actual addiction gene that could be passed on to me as in no refunds…all sales final is definitely not something that’s been on my radar.
“I’d want to know,” I say, thinking my only hope is that if there is such a gene, maybe it’s recessive and I only have one bad copy. Maybe I got a good copy from my asshole dad. He’s never shown his face in my life, though, so getting anything good from him, even a gene, seems unlikely.
New Boy yanks out his earbuds, twists in his seat, and looks at me with the most ridiculously blue eyes I’ve ever seen. I’m thinking he might be kind of cute. But then, he speaks.
“No way, man. That’s bullshit.”
I wait for Mrs. Lopez to throw New Boy’s ass out of class. She doesn’t. Instead she says, “Okay, Jesse, save the language for the locker room, but tell us why you don’t agree.”
“It’s obvious!” he says, thumping the table. “Haven’t you ever heard of Big Brother? They’re watching us, and they just want to watch us more.”
Anj twirls her finger by her head, making the universal sign for crazy. Chrissy, fully awake now, snickers behind her hand. A few others stare.
New Boy doesn’t notice. Either that or he doesn’t care. “Think about it,” he goes on. “The wrong people get this information about you…you’re screwed. Big corporate-suit types, you think they’re going to give you health insurance if they know you’re getting cancer? My mom couldn’t get insurance because she took antidepressants. They put it on her record and called it a pre-existing condition.” He snatches a pencil off the table and assaults the air with the point as he rants. “Depression’s nothing. You want to talk about pre-existing conditions, try opening up your genome to a disease you don’t even have yet, see what they do to you. ‘Oh yeah, we’d love to hire you, but damn, looks like you’re going to be getting a little nutty soon. See, it says it right here. You have the nut-case gene. We’re going to hire someone else.’”
I stiffen my shoulders and narrow my eyes at New Boy. “Okay, Mr. Big-Brother’s-Watching, how about this? What if by knowing you had some condition, you could avoid it? You could plan for your future. Not make so many mistakes. What if you could fix it before it even happened?”
“And what if it never happened?” he shoots back.“What if you never got the condition? You ever hear the saying ‘Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken’?”
I thrust my hand into the pocket of my leather jacket and thumb the wheel of the empty Zippo lighter I keep hidden there. Her lighter. “What if one cigarette turns you into a nicotine addict because you have the addiction gene and you die of lung cancer?”
New Boy starts another, “What if…” but Mrs. Lopez cuts him off and asks if anyone else would like to add to the discussion. He ignores her and forges ahead with his know- it-all line of telling the world how it is. “Some things should be left alone, man. Genetically engineered plants, genetically engineered babies. That’s sick stuff.”
“What are you, some kind of fundamentalist?” Anj chides. “Are you on the God squad?”
Mrs. Lopez scolds Anj, tells her everyone has the right to their opinion whether or not you agree, but New Boy just shrugs, flips his hair out of his eyes, and keeps blabbering.
“It’s nothing to do with religion or God. It’s that I don’t think we need to know everything, go about fixing all these things that work just fine. It’s arrogant.”
“You’re arrogant,” I snap.“I mean, what if you knew someone you loved was going to die? What if there was a genetic reason for it, and knowing that reason could keep them from dying? Hiding that information, now that’s arrogant.”
It’s me and New Boy, facing off. Mrs. Lopez is saying something, but I’m not paying attention.
“So what, you live your life in fear?” he says. “What if you find out your kid’s going to be retarded, or have one leg, brown eyes instead of blue? Huh? What do you do? Abort the kid until you get the right one?”
“Who’s talking about abortion?” I shout.
And that’s the last of the discussion for New Boy and me because Mrs.Lopez tells us to cool it,and we move on to a DVD about DNA and proteins or something. I couldn’t care less.
I put my head on my desk and tune out for the rest of class. I’m the first out of there when the bell rings, but Jerk-Off follows me to my locker. I turn to tell him to get lost, but he’s got this big stupid grin on his face, like we’re buds. “You were so on in there,” he says.
“Totally awesome. You held your line, man, right in the face of fire.” He makes this motion like he’s shooting a gun, and now I think Anj is right. He is crazy. “Come on, lighten up. That was nothing personal back there.”
“Yeah? Well, if it was nothing personal, then you should just keep your mouth shut because you don’t know anything about me.” I slam my locker and head down the hall.
“Hey! What’s your name?” he calls after me. I raise my middle finger and keep walking.
I can’t deal with another class today, especially indoor field hockey or volleyball or whatever form of corporal punishment Mr. Griffith, our physical humiliation teacher, is planning to bestow on us for seventh period, so I blow off PE and head home to Aunt T’s, my stomach in knots.
If genes are destiny, I’m screwed.